WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- The U.S. Veterans Affairs Department has completed more than 1 million pension and benefits claims this year, but still has 890,000 claims pending, data show.
It takes about eight months to process the average claim for pension, education or disability benefits, about two months longer than 10 years ago, which has created frustration for the filers, mishandled documents, miscommunications and errors, The New York Times reported Thursday.
Last year, veterans filed more than 1.3 million claims, about double the number filed in 2001, data indicated.
Projections indicate the three benefits programs will cost about $76 billion next year, triple the amount in 2001, the Times said. By 2022, projected costs are expected to rise to about $130 billion.
The department is administering pensions for World War II veterans, and handling claims from Vietnam veterans as well as veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"We're not gaining any ground here," Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told the Times. "Am I impatient? Yes, but I've got a fix."
Shinseki said the VA's "transformation plan" calls for a new training program to improve speed and accuracy in processing claims, tasking designated teams to handle complex claims and taking advantage of digital technology to replace the current paper system.
He said all the components of the plan should be in place by 2015. Once in place, every claim will be processed in less than 125 days, with almost no errors, the secretary said.
Current and former VA workers who spoke with the Times said the problems are many, including inadequate training, weak management, a complicated process, and performance standards requiring them to meet quotas under threat of demotion or firing.
Another problem, employees told the Times, is the department's apparent conflicting missions. Veterans Affairs employees are encouraged to advocate for veterans, yet are required to safeguard public funds and often are called upon to determine the truly needy from those needing less to the downright fraudulent, the employees said.