McDonough: VA hiring push expected to stop increased VA claims from adding to agency backlog
Stars and Stripes May 30, 2023
AUSTIN, Texas — The Department of Veterans Affairs expects to end 2023 with a record number of veterans filing disability claims, but the recent hiring push at the agency should help expedite the process and not add to its backlog of unresolved cases, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Tuesday.
The VA’s backlog of claims, which are cases waiting more than 125 days for a decision, has remained at roughly 200,000, despite the increase in filings triggered by the passage last year of a law that expanded toxic exposure benefits.
“We're working very hard to make sure that we bring that down. But the fact is, it's lower than we feared it [would be]… had we not had the success that we've had in hiring,” McDonough said after touring a VA clinic in Cedar Park, a northern suburb of Austin.
The Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, or PACT Act, became law in 2022. Now millions of additional veterans could be eligible for disability benefits because of exposure that they might have had to toxins, such as those that emanated from burn pits used to rid overseas military bases of trash and other materials during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill also covers veterans exposed to toxins during the Vietnam War.
The VA is approaching 600,000 claims filed through the PACT Act since President Joe Biden signed it in August.
The law included a $5 billion Toxic Exposure Fund to cover the increased demand on the agency to help avoid problems caused by a similar expansion of coverage years earlier. More than 611,000 claims backlogged following a court decision that allowed for Vietnam veterans to get re-evaluated for claims filed for exposure to the pesticide Agent Orange.
The VA anticipated the PACT Act’s passage and began using extra funds to ramp up its hiring efforts. Since then, it increased its Veterans Benefits Administration staff by 20%, McDonough said.
Last year, the VA received a record-breaking 1.7 million claims for benefits. This year has already seen 30% more, he said.
Concern grew this month within the VA that progress made on claim processing could stall as Republican lawmakers considered cutting the department’s budget as part of cost-savings being negotiated in exchange for raising the federal government’s debt ceiling. Republicans argued McDonough misrepresented their proposal and VA spending was not in jeopardy.
However, with a debt-ceiling agreement reached in recent days, McDonough said money set aside for the PACT Act would be safe through 2024 and for years to follow.
“That's a really big and important give in the [agreement]. It's one of the reasons that the President [Joe Biden] feels as strong as he does about it,” McDonough said.
McDonough made the trip to Texas to discuss the PACT Act and see the progress being made to get benefits to veterans, their families and surviving spouses. The trip also aimed to reach veterans about the benefits now available to them and encourage them to file a claim.
As part of his meetings in Cedar Park, McDonough also met with Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who represents Cedar Park and serves as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s subpanel for military construction and veterans affairs.
In the meeting Carter said he had “a good cross-section of complaints and praises” to share with McDonough.
One of his larger concerns is ensuring the VA can compete to hire medical providers despite the private sector’s ability offer more money.
“It’s really hard to get these specialties like major neurosurgeons. They’re scarce as hen’s teeth, as my mother used to say,” Carter said.
Central Texas is the third fastest growing region for veterans across the country with two new facilities opened last year in Killeen and Copperas Cove, and two more slated for San Marcos and Pflugerville, McDonough said.
As part of McDonough’s tour through Texas, which is home to about 1.5 million veterans, he has planned visits in the next two days to VA offices and medical facilities in Austin, San Antonio and Houston.