WASHINGTON — House lawmakers grilled a top Veterans Affairs official Wednesday on the Obama administration’s plan to address the growing bureaucratic bottleneck facing veterans who are seeking disability benefits.

Roughly 70 percent of the 896,000 claims pending with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have been in the pipeline for more than the 125 days that the VA set as its goal post.

Since 2011, the average processing time nationwide has increased from 182 days to 279 days, while many veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan face delays ranging from 300 to nearly 650 days, depending on where they live.

While the situation at Maine’s Togus regional office near Augusta is better than most VA facilities — with 30 percent of claims taking longer than 125 days to process — members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said the overall situation was unacceptable.

“The VA’s demonstrated history shows its inability or refusal to forecast problems and anticipate its needs, and the only people paying the price for the failure of the VA are the veterans,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman. “The time for excuses is over.”

Miller and Maine’s Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, convened Wednesday’s hearing during a week that saw the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. With U.S. combat operations in Iraq complete and the draw-down of troops from Afghanistan, the VA is processing record numbers of disability compensation claims but has struggled to keep pace.

“It’s an old adage that a benefit delayed is a benefit denied,” Michaud said. “Far too many veterans are waiting far too many days to receive the benefits they have earned.”

Allison Hickey, a retired brigadier general who is the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, said her department remains committed to the goal of processing all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015. And the new, entirely online claims filing and tracking system being phased in this spring will go a long way toward speeding up the process, Hickey told the committee.

“None of us at the VA find it acceptable … that it takes too long to get a veteran an answer on their claim,” Hickey said. “But we are well on our way and on a path” to reducing the backlog.

The Togus facility that serves Maine veterans ranks among the more efficient of the VA’s regional offices. According to figures supplied by Michaud’s office, Togus processed roughly 70 percent of claims within a 125-day window and had a 96 percent accuracy rate during the past three months. However, that still leaves more than 411 veterans whose claims have been pending for 125 days or longer.

The most serious backlogs are concentrated in metropolitan areas. In Los Angeles, for instance, the average processing time was 506 days — compared to roughly 125 at Togus — and roughly 80 percent were pending more than 125 days. Other facilities where average waits exceeded 300 days were in Baltimore, Phoenix, Reno, Nev., Oakland, Calif., and Waco, Texas.

Michaud said afterward that he believes Togus benefits from lower employee turnover, which means there are more experienced staff available to handle complicated claims.

During the hearing, Michaud recommended that the VA consider breaking up more complex applications seeking claims for multiple medical conditions. The more complicated conditions — such as traumatic brain injury, or TBI — could be sent to more experienced and proficient staff members at Togus or other high-performing facilities, he said.

“That is exactly part of the look we are taking from a strategy perspective,” Hickey said told Michaud. “By 2015 when we are completely paperless … we will have the ability to know who the best people across the country are who do TBI, who do (post-traumatic stress disorder), that do diabetes, that do Parkinson’s.”

Back in Maine, Sheri Drake with the American Legion credited Togus and its employees for their hard work and willingness to take on challenging cases. As an assistant service officer, Drake is one of the people working for nongovernmental groups that help veterans or their family members navigate the VA’s complex and bureaucratic claims-processing system.

As part of the recent changes, the VA is putting more burden on the service officers to compile all of the necessary information. Drake said she hopes the transition to an online benefits system will help but that there are still some aspects to be worked out, such as notifying service officers when a veteran receives new information from the VA.

“It’s supposed to take less time, but we’ll see,” Drake said.

Hickey said the 2009 decision to accept more disability claims for Vietnam veterans potentially exposed to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange flooded the system with 260,000 additional claims.

Hickey said that after work on Agent Orange claims was complete, she directed regional offices to direct those staff members to focus on other claims that had been pending for two years or longer. Focusing on new claims would have helped reduce the average wait, but Hickey said they are trying to resolve the most delinquent claims first.

“I could have made my numbers look better,” she said. “I didn’t choose to do that.”

On Tuesday, Miller had said he would like to see Hickey resign from her post because of the backlog; but several veterans organizations, including Disabled Veterans of America, submitted written testimony praising Hickey’s leadership and her work with their groups to address concerns.

Although concerned about the backlog, Michaud was more complimentary of recent changes at the VA and has not pushed for Hickey’s resignation.

“He’s concerned that a change in leadership at (the Veterans Benefits Administration) at this time would force things to start all over again,” said Ed Gilman, Michaud’s spokesman. “A replacement would have a steep learning curve and possibly further delay much-needed reforms to VA’s processing.”

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
[email protected]
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

 

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