From March to December last year, the VA decreased the backlog from more than 600,000 to about 400,000 claims, according to the report. However, it also found that backlogged claims still comprise more than half of the VA’s pending claims.
The report comes a little more than a year after the VA introduced a strategic plan to eliminate the backlog and process all compensation claims within 125 days by the end of fiscal 2015, as well as automate and streamline its system.
The report recommended the VA create standardized claim forms along with an operating system linking the VA’s data to Department of Defense databases. It also emphasized the need to improve accuracy in claims processing, a key component for resolving more than 265,000 appeals.
IAVA officials who released the report at a briefing questioned the VA’s overall goals in decreasing the backlog, as well as its transparency about its data collection process. For example, there are 15 different types of disability claims, yet the VA only counts 11 of them as part of the backlog, said Tom Tarantino, IAVA chief policy officer.
“There is this huge hole in terms of transparency in data within the VA,” he said. “The way they define backlog isn’t even all that clear.”
With the influx of new veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the recent expansion of VA coverage to include post-traumatic stress disorder and Agent Orange exposure, the VA needs to have a game plan beyond 2015, officials said.
“They are sprinting toward 2015 for 0, but we don’t know if they’re going to keep running,” Tarantino said. “We don’t know what 2016 and 2017 is going to look like.”
Added Peter Dickinson, senior adviser for Disabled American Veterans, “We’re not trying to process claims, we’re trying to make sure veterans get the benefits they’re entitled to.”
The report’s release comes less than a week after President Barack Obama affirmed his commitment to decreasing the backlog in his State of the Union address, when he said it is necessary to “keep slashing that backlog so our veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned.” In December, Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said at a Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing that the department’s reforms were having a “real impact” for veterans.
Retired Marine Corps Sgt. Chris Young is one of those waiting for his claim to be processed. Young, who completed two tours in Iraq between 2004 and 2012 as a communications specialist and Marine security guard, is seeking benefits for injuries to his hand, arm and head.
“There’s not a lot of information out there to actually help veterans with claims by themselves,” he said.