Congressman calls on top VA official to resign over benefits backlog
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 20, 2013
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers frustrated over worsening waits by veterans for overdue benefits claims have begun targeting Veterans Affairs workers and leaders, saying someone needs to be held accountable.
On Wednesday, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called for the department’s top benefits administrator, Undersecretary Allison Hickey, to step down over the lack of the improvement in the claims backlog.
Last week, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee threatened to cut off funding to the department’s headquarters staff unless improvements are made. Lawmakers from both committees questioned whether any underperforming employees have been reprimanded or fired for the continued failure of the system.
“There are many people losing patience as we continue to hear the same excuses from VA about increased workload and increased complexity of claims,” Miller said at a hearing Wednesday. “Without better workload or surge capacity planning, I fear that VA is simply one national mission away from complete collapse and utter failure.”
Nearly 900,000 veterans compensation and disability claims are currently pending with the department, and about 630,000 of those have been in the system for more than four months.
That backlog has steadily worsened over the last few years, despite VA promises last summer that the numbers would improve by now and the department’s stated goal of erasing the overdue claims in 2015.
The department processed more than 1 million veterans claims each of the last three years, but still saw the number of overdue files increase.
Hickey, who did not directly respond to Miller’s calls for her resignation, told both committees that the department has turned a corner on the backlog, and expects to see progress over the next two years.
She credited new processing technology and techniques, better electronic records sharing, and increased training and staffing to handle the problem.
“We have achieved momentum with our transformation plan that will improve how veterans’ benefits are delivered for generations to come, and 2013 is the year of full deployment and change,” she told lawmakers.
But lawmakers and veterans groups questioned that.
Officials from the VFW — who defended Hickey and dismissed calls for her resignation — said they doubt 2015 is a realistic time line to eliminate the backlog. Leaders from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called for a presidential commission on the issue, an idea several members of Congress have backed.
VA officials said they have worked closely with veterans service organizations to plot out fixes. New rules which allow those groups to submit “fully developed” claims on behalf of veterans are designed to help dramatically reduce the wait times and simplify the process.
Still, even supporters of the department’s changes expressed frustration over the pace of progress. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said he supports the VA’s current path but “we’ve got to get it done already. Sometime in the next few months, we need to break this thing.”
Hickey said she understood the skepticism, but said she is confident that the department can reach that 2015 goal.