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Disability-compensation claims for veterans lag as 'VA backlog' worsens

The average wait time for wounded veterans to see their disability-compensation claims completed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has now grown to 262 days — or nearly nine months — according to a federal website and three watchdog groups.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki earlier this year vowed to shrink the so-called “VA backlog” to 125 days by 2015 as the agency finishes transitioning to a digital processing system.

Despite that promise, the claims-completion gap has expanded steadily during the past year. The VA’s benefits-aspiration web page shows the average claims-processing time was 223 days in October 2011, 246 days in April 2012, 257 days in July and 260 days in August. In fact, the backlog has doubled in size since 2008, congressional members report.

The agency called its widening claims backlog "unacceptable" but said it is taking steps to try to fix that problem.

"VA has completed a record-breaking 1 million claims per year the last three fiscal years. Yet too many Veterans have to wait too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve," the VA said in a statement emailed to NBC News on Tuesday. "That’s unacceptable, and VA is building a strong foundation for a paperless, digital disability claims system — a lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog. This paperless technology is being deployed to 18 regional offices in 2012, and it will reach all 56 VA Regional Offices by the end of 2013 to help deliver faster, better decisions for Veterans."

The move to paperless processing "will ensure we achieve" Shinseki's 2015 goal, the VA said, adding: "Fixing this decades-old problem isn’t easy, but we have an aggressive plan that is on track to succeed." In 2011, VA paid nearly $5 billion in compensation to wounded veterans, it reported. 

The VA cited four reasons for what it calls "claims growth": 

  • Increased demand — "the result of 10 years of war" and due to many veterans returning "with severe, complex injuries";  
  • in 2010, Shinseki decided the VA claims system should include the recognition of medical conditions related to Agent Orange exposure (240,000 claims were processed in 2011 for such exposure) as well as "Gulf War Illness"; 
  • approximately 45 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are currently seeking compensation for injuries related to their service — and that marks a "historical high" for the VA following wars. Those claims include an average of eight to 10 medical issues per claim, more than double the Vietnam era;
  • the VA says it is doing "better outreach" to veterans "to educate them about the benefits they’ve earned."

Still, the thickening backlog drew fire from veterans advocates and from Capitol Hill.

“These delays are indicative of a out-dated system," said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group representing more than 200,000 veterans.

"The Department of Veterans Affairs promises year after year that they'll reduce the backlog. Instead, it's gotten worse. While the reasons for this are complicated, the fact remains that these continuous delays greatly impact the daily lives of veterans who are waiting for care and benefits," Tarantino said. "Veterans deserve better.”

Last Wednesday, during a contentious hearing examining the VA’s spending and larger accountability, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould “the truce is over” between Congress and Gould's agency. Miller became visibly frustrated during the hearing after Gould repeatedly said he could not or would not answer specific questions from committee members on spending and the agency’s internal discipline over admitted ethical missteps.

Told Tuesday that the claims backlog has nearly reached nine-months long on average, Miller said the wait time is another example of VA’s failure to keep its promises to veterans.

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“VA continues to tout its disability claims transformation plan to clean up the backlog by 2015. Without any details of the plan ... which continues to increase on a daily basis — and which has doubled in the past four years — I remain highly suspicious of any plan that claims to be able to reverse the problems in this process overnight,” Miller said in an email to NBC News.

“As Congress has said for many years now, VA needs to look at the root of the problem of the backlog — training, management, oversight, and technology — and work forward from those four points to address this problem,” Miller added. “Quick fixes will no longer work, and will continue to make veterans wait months, sometimes years, on end for an answer.”

While the VA said its pilot paperless program has cut average processing times from 250 days to 119 days at those test offices, veterans in seven other cities were still waiting — as of October — longer than one year, on average, for their disability claims to complete their trek through the VA pipeline, according to the VA’s online chart.

Those cities — and the average claims-processing times in their VA regional offices are: Waco, Texas (418 days), Los Angeles (394 days), New York City (380 days), Chicago (378 days), Oakland (377 days), Indianapolis (373 days), and Phoenix (365 days), according to the VA site.

In October 2011, no veterans were waiting more than a year, on average, for their disability claims to be processed, the VA site shows. In Waco, the average wait during October 2011 was 309 days. That means the backlog has increased in that city by 35 percent during the past year.

“Despite promises of an improvement, veterans wait about three months longer than they did in May 2011. In fact, the VA's own numbers show the average wait time veterans face has gotten longer every single month over the last year and a half,” said Aaron Glantz, a reporter with the Berkeley, Calif.-based Center for Investigative Reporting.

The group keeps its own map, titled "Waiting For Help," which shows the backlog's highs and lows in individual cities. According to CIR's tally, 821,804 veterans now are waiting for their claims to be processed by the VA. That's actually a scrap of good news: it marks a slight decrease from in the number in that queue as compared to Aug. 25, when 899,000 veterans had compensation and pension claims pending. 

CIR describes itself as “the nation's oldest nonprofit investigative reporting organization.” Glantz acknowledges a personal interest in the backlog that stems from his years (2003 to 2005) working as a journalist in Iraq.

“Ever since I returned home, I've been deluged with phone calls and emails from veterans who say they returned home from the war to face a battle with the government for the benefits they earned,” Glantz said. “I've seen veterans fall into suicide and homelessness while they wait.

“Today, I received a call from a female Iraq war veteran who is living on the street with her 20-month daughter,” he added. “She has been waiting for two years for the VA to rule on her disability claim for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

In a related development, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held an oversight hearing Tuesday to examine what it dubbed the tasks of “wading through warehouses of paper” and “the challenges of transitioning veterans records to paperless technology.” 

During the hearing, Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, called for tighter collaboration between the VA and the U.S. Department of Defense. Runyan said improving those communications would smooth the transition for veterans now exiting the armed services. 

“VA has a statutory duty to assist a claimant in obtaining certain records. Accordingly, it is important that we work together to ensure that VA is able to communicate both effectively and efficiently with both the National Archives and DoD to comply with this duty,” Runyan said. 

The subcommittee added in a news release after the hearing: “It was recently brought to light that DoD’s poor record-keeping habits have in turn had a negative impact on VA’s ability to fully carry out its responsibility to assist veterans in obtaining records from their time in service.” 

Said Runyan: “Issues pertaining to the thoroughness of DoD’s record keeping have recently received media attention in light of evidence that some units were not properly documenting in-service events, such as combat-related incidents. This has been a source of significant frustration for many veterans who file claims with VA and are dependent on such documentation to substantiate their claims.”


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