The continuing funding resolution that ended the government shutdown last week gave the Department of Veterans Affairs a bigger boost to resolve the VA’s backlog of disability claims, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday.
“In April, I joined a number of others expressing frustration” with the staggering VA claims backlog, Reid, D-Nev., said in a teleconference with reporters to announce nearly $300 million in added VA funding as budgets of other federal agencies remain flat.
Much of the funding will be used to wean VA benefit offices nationwide off their dependence on paperwork, converting to computerized claims processing, and to train new veterans for civilian jobs.
Some of that money will go to help the VA Reno benefits office process claims. The Reno office, which serves 250,000 Nevada veterans in addition to vets in some California counties, was ranked fifth-worst in the nation for processing claims earlier this year.
“Because Nevada is lagging behind all others, we’ll get our share,” Reid said.
But the leader of a veterans organization that launched a cross-country bus tour Oct. 4 in Las Vegas to raise awareness about the claims backlog said the money is appreciated, but he isn’t convinced that throwing money at the problem will fix it.
“You’re throwing more funds at a dysfunctional system,” said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. “That’s been the gold-plated solution forever.”
The VA’s budget has increased by 40 percent since 2009 yet the claims backlog has persisted because the VA operates in a “culture of mediocrity” that lacks accountability, he said at the onset of the tour.
The result, Hegseth said, has been larger bonuses for employees who don’t perform well and multi-million-dollar computer systems that don’t work.
During a tour stop in Lynchburg, Va., Hegseth noted the VA previously received $500 million to expedite the claims process with a digitized system but still has failed to meet its funding-based goals.
He cited fresh statistics released Monday by Rep. Jeff Miller,R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Through Aug. 29 in fiscal year 2013, which ended Sept. 30, the VA completed 1.17 million claims, or nearly 100,000 less than VA benefits managers had planned to complete. In the same period, the VA received 1.04 million new claims, or 272,000 less than VA budget planners had anticipated. So the VA benefits offices received more funding to complete less of a task and still didn’t meet their internal goals.
“Instead of debating whether or not VA’s dire predictions regarding the shutdown’s impact came to fruition, I remain focused on a much more important question: why is the department still falling short of its own backlog goals?” Miller said in a news release.
VA statistics from April showed 80 percent of Nevada’s 10,333 claimants had been waiting more than 125 days for claims to be processed, including 4,210 who have waited more than a year for an answer.
Last year, the average wait to complete a veteran’s appeal was 903 days. In April, there were nearly 900,000 veterans disability claims pending nationwide. Two-thirds of the backlog, 606,000 claims, was generated by service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the remaining claims are attributed to veterans of previous wars, such as Vietnam, who filed claims for health problems linked to Agent Orange herbicide exposure.
Reid praised VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for doing a “wonderful job” because the claims backlog was dropping by more than 2,000 claims each day before the government shutdown. During the shutdown, claims processing was stalled when 7,000 VA benefits employees were furloughed nationwide, including 32 at the Reno regional office.
Concerned Veterans for America notes, however, that the VA’s reported progress in reducing the backlog is a mirage because claims processors rushed to deny claims with little review. The result: a backlog in appeals.
In June there were 45,000 appeals waiting to be heard by the Board of Veterans Appeals, and that number is expected to swell to 102,000 by 2017, according to Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.