No one disputes that the VA’s job is particularly difficult with the large group of veterans returning.
The VA is testing more than 40 new programs to fix the problem, even as it juggles an ever-growing caseload. It’s kind of like fixing a race car as it speeds around the track.
More than a million disability claims were processed last year. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home with more complicated injuries. Only recently, Vietnam veterans began receiving payments for illnesses now believed to be caused by Agent Orange poisoning.
The Pittsburgh office of the Veterans Benefits Administration serves more than 364,000 veterans in western Pennsylvania and the northern panhandle of West Virginia, as well as cases from veterans who live in other countries. The foreign cases account for almost one-third of the workload. They can take longer to handle, VA officials said, because it is harder to get medical records.
The Philadelphia office covers 40 counties in central and eastern Pennsylvania, and parts of New Jersey.
Nearly all claims are filed on paper, and the VA is betting that replacing paper-based claims with electronic records will improve productivity by 45 to 60 percent.
The Pittsburgh office began using new software in March. “It’s actually pretty cool,” said Jon Kennell, a veterans service representative who evaluates claims. “There are still some kinks, but they are getting worked out very quickly.”
Kennell, also a veteran, said he is speaking from his experience, and not on behalf of the VA. He said new procedures also are starting to reduce redundant work.
Still, it is unclear whether the new software and procedures will eliminate the backlog by 2015, as pledged. Last June, the VA said the software “cut the time to process claims nearly in half” at test sites, and in January the agency said the software “will continue to increase quality, accuracy, and the timeliness of claims decisions.”
Two recent government evaluations contradict the VA’s optimism.
In December, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the software was “not yet ready for national deployment,” because of software performance issues and delays in scanning paper files.
In February, the VA’s Office of Inspector General reported that tasks that used to take four minutes to complete were taking 18 minutes. The Inspector General concluded that the tests were not large enough to assure that the new system will work.
A tense exchange
Senators also expressed skepticism at a March 13 hearing.
“Many of us have serious doubts” about eliminating the backlog by 2015, said Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent-VT, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
The VA had previously predicted that the backlog would begin to narrow in 2012, but now expects the gap to widen into 2014, noted Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC.
“The VA claims process has been plagued by errors, delays, and backlogs for many years,” Burr said. “In the latest attempt to fix this system, VA hired thousands of claims processing staff, spent millions developing new IT solutions, and rolled out dozens of other initiatives. But this has yet to translate into better service for veterans
, their families and their survivors.”
Three times during the hearing, Burr asked Allison Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits, to provide performance metrics that had not been given to the committee. Three times Hickey evaded the request .
Burr threatened to fence off money unless the VA provided the numbers.
“I would like to be more optimistic that VA can meet this deadline,” Burr said in an email to PublicSource, “but their reluctance to release information related to the initiative, in addition to a poor track record thus far, missed milestones, and shifting timelines make me skeptical that they will be able to achieve this goal by 2015.”
Reach Bill Heltzel at 412-315-0265 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
PA veterans served by two offices
Source: U.S. Veterans Affairs
Map by: Alexandra Kanik/Public Source
Disability claims backlog for veterans
Source: U.S. Veterans Affairs, as provided to the Center for Investigative Reporting
Note: The Pittsburgh office covers 27 counties in western Pennsylvania, four in the northern panhandle of West Virginia and some overseas claims. The Philadelphia office covers 40 counties in central and eastern Pennsylvania and seven in New Jersey.
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