VA workers say mandatory overtime won't solve benefits backlog
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 17, 2013
WASHINGTON — Claims processors within the Veterans Benefits Administration are skeptical than new overtime mandates from Veterans Affairs officials will help solve the department’s benefits backlog, but they do believe the extra work will ruin employee morale.
Members of VBA Truth -- a group of anonymous claims workers with the stated goal of “raising awareness about what’s really going on in this dysfunctional agency” -- said the overtime requirement announced this week shows that VA leaders don’t have a well-reasoned plan to end the backlog, and the problem isn’t just simply underperforming processors.
“We’ve been forced to work mandatory overtime the last two years, and yet the backlog remains,” said one VBA employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of firing. “It burns employees out and creates a feeling of resentment to the agency.”
Earlier this week, department officials announced that all 10,000-plus VA employees who process disability claims will be required to work at least 20 hours overtime each month, between now and Sept. 30.
The goal is to help more quickly process the 567,000 compensation pending claims that are “backlogged” — unfinished after more than four months of processing. The average wait for a claim to be completed is almost nine months.
Department leaders said the required overtime, amounting to 11 or 12 days for claims employees, would have a “measurable impact” on reaching the department’s goal of eliminating the backlog in 2015.
VBA Truth members disputed that. They said similar overtime mandates, in spring 2012 and summer 2011, produced no real progress on the backlog.
During the four-month period in 2012, the number of backlog claims remained almost unchanged. During the five-month period in 2011, the backlog numbers rose by about 4 percent.
But benefits administration officials that’s only part of the story. They argue that claims processors saw their work output jump about 12 percent during the extra hours worked 2012. But because the volume of claims entering the system also increased, the result was flat.
Department workers have completed more than 4.1 million claims over the past four years, a record production level for the department. But they also took in 4.6 million claims over the same period, leading to the steadily growing backlog.
VA officials have not said how expensive this round and past rounds of mandatory overtime have been. VBA Truth members said they would prefer new hires to more overtime mandates, saying that would provide a permanent solution to the workload problem.
But VA spokesman Josh Taylor said that getting new employees fully trained and proficient on the complex claims processing system takes “significant time.”
“Hiring employees today will have little effect on the current inventory and backlog,” he said.
The overtime, Taylor said, is just one part of a multi-step plan to solve the backlog issue. New technology, new training and new processing procedures implemented in recent months are all designed to clear the tens of thousands of pending claims.
But it will mean less free time this summer for embattled claims processors, which irritates the VBA Truth members.
“No one we know is happy with this news, even those employees that work overtime on a regular basis,” one group member said.