AUGUSTA — Maine’s veterans benefits office is second-best in the nation at keeping disability claim backlogs down, ahead of the Obama administration’s hopeful 2015 deadline to end backlogs nationwide.
Federal data compiled by the McClatchy newspapers this week said 38 percent of claims processed by the Togus regional office of the Veterans Benefits Administration are backlogged, defined by the government as pending for 125 days or more.
Of the 56 regional offices in America, only Sioux Falls, S.D. bested Togus. There, only 33 percent of cases were backlogged.
The national average, McClatchy reported, is still 58 percent. So the federal government has plenty of work to do to eliminate backlogs by 2015, a promise made earlier this year that veterans’ groups have been supportive, yet skeptical of.
It’s a “really great” goal, said Ronald Brodeur of Chelsea, adjutant of the Maine department of Disabled American Veterans, a group that assists veterans with benefit applications.
But as more veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars come home and Vietnam-era veterans age, the 2015 goal could be a “floating target,” he said.
“The reality may not be there,” Brodeur said.
Nationwide, the Department of Veterans Affairs has reported progress recently.
In a Thursday news release, it said since March, backlogged claims have been reduced from 611,000 to 401,000, a 34 percent decrease. The department also highlighted a drop in the rate of errors in processed claims. It said over the past three months, 90 percent of claim decisions have been accurate, up from 83 percent in 2010.
However, Togus says it has consistently been better than the national standard. Brodeur said over the past 15 years, it has been “at the top of the list” among benefits offices nationally.
A representative from the Maine office said Togus’ accuracy rate is 98 percent, and its share of backlogged cases has remained steady over the past years, even as Togus has taken on brokered claims work in recent years from other regional offices that have fallen behind. If Maine didn’t have to handle those claims, their backlog rate would likely be better.
Citing office policy, a representative declined to be quoted on the Togus office’s success relative to other offices, referring a reporter to a national VA spokesman, who didn’t return messages seeking comment Friday.
Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill aimed squarely at the backlog. Among other things, it would establish a commission to analyze the backlog problem and provide suggested solutions in order to help the Obama administration toward its 2015 elimination goal.
In a prepared statement, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said while recent trends are positive, delay has been a “persistent problem” and “we’d be wrong to think we can’t be doing more.” He said the Senate should pass the bill as well.
Togus has also been one of seven campuses nationwide that have increased the use of “fully developed claims” — those that require no further documentation from veterans — in recent months behind an initiative backed by The American Legion, which said in a July news release that those types of claims take an average of 114 days to be decided, compared to 260 days for traditional claims, a culprit of the backlog.
In the third quarter of the 2013 fiscal year, the Legion reported 34 percent claims it submitted to Togus were fully developed, compared to less than 3 percent in the year’s first quarter.
Claims staff at Togus, Brodeur said, has grown in recent years. Most of the staff members he knows are veterans, and they “take care of their own.”
“I’m not surprised to see that Togus remains near the top when it comes to the best performing regional offices,” Michaud said in the statement. “We have some very talented and hardworking veterans service organizations and VA employees here in Maine that are dedicated to providing veterans with outstanding service.”
Michael Shepherd — 370-7652