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VA hits backlog goal in 3 cities: Hint of a fix or mirage?

Evan Vucci / AP file

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, on April 18, before the House Appropriations subcommittee on Military Constructions, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies hearing on the Veterans Affairs Department's fiscal 2014 budget.

The U.S. Veterans Affairs department says it has hit a “tipping point,” cutting its monstrous backlog of disability claims by 74,000 since late April, yet agency critics contend that growing throngs of ex-troops waiting for injury compensation in America’s biggest cities show the VA is “over-promising and under-delivering.”

Amid scrutiny from Capitol Hill and the White House, a top VA official reaffirmed last week the agency will meet its goal to process all disability-benefit claims within 125 days by 2015. Three of the VA’s 56 regional offices — St. Paul, Minn., Sioux Falls, S.D., and Providence, R.I. — have achieved that threshold, and VA officials told NBC News they will pluck lessons from those “pockets of success.”

“We can get those best practices, (and) shine the light on some of our problem areas,” said Beth McCoy, who oversees 14 VA regional offices in the country’s midsection, including St. Paul, where benefit claims are typically processed in 100 days. 

But those “problem areas” — where some duty-injured veterans wait 16 to 19 months for disability checks to stay financially afloat — are coloring the national mood regarding the VA.

Jonathan Goodman, 29, a Marine veteran from Tulsa, Okla., and his wife, Shannon, say the delay in his disability-benefit claim has been putting a strain on their finances.

“It's sad to see so many veterans come back and apply for this, and it just takes so long. It can send a lot of guys into a downward spiral,” said Jonathan Goodman, 29, a Marine veteran from Tulsa, Okla. who earned a Purple Heart Medal for wounds sustained in a 2004 suicide-bomb blast. He's been waiting 11 months for the VA to process his disability-benefit claim.

“I just want to see guys get the (financial) help they've earned. I don’t want to see veterans put on the back burner," he added.

Veterans in 12 cities now face delays of more than 400 days, on average, for their regional VA offices to handle their disability claims. One year ago, no cities posted VA backlogs surpassing 400 days, according to the agency’s online benefits dashboard.

As of May 30 this year, the average backlog wait for veterans in New York City was 496 days, up 34 percent from a year ago, the dashboard shows. In Los Angeles, the average wait is now 568 days, up 63 percent since last year.

In May 2012, the VA reported a national “rating claims processing time” of 250 days. As of May 30 this year, that national average was 302 days. 

“VA has been over-promising and under-delivering for decades under both Democrat and Republican administrations,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “While VA leaders seem confident they’re on track to break the backlog by 2015, they haven’t provided us with any evidence to support that projection. That’s why the closer we get to 2015, the more I’m convinced that ending the backlog by then will require a commitment from the only person with the power to ensure VA lives up to its word: President Obama.”

And veterans are challenging President Barack Obama to act. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which represents more than 200,000 men and women, posed five questions about the backlog to Obama on June 5. They asked, for example, how the White House is coordinating efforts between the Department of Defense and the VA to slash wait times.

Other VA watchdogs want to know: Does the quick work executed at VA regional offices in St. Paul, Sioux Falls (where it typically takes 115 days to process claims) and Providence (117 days) foreshadow the dawn of a larger fix?

“It’s worth looking at the leadership climate and the procedures used at those regional offices to see what they are doing differently,” said Tom Tarantino, IAVA's chief policy officer. “You also have to consider ... you only have 831 claims pending at the Sioux Falls office. When we solve those problems in L.A., then we will see progress.” 

In Tulsa, where Marine veteran Goodman waits on a disability claim he filed with the VA in July 2012, life means managing wounds and ailments he sustained during two Iraq tours: a traumatic brain injury, back problems, and migraines plus memory and anxiety issues — all of which make working and going to school difficult, he said.

While he appreciates the medical treatment he gets from his local VA hospital, he said, the job that best suits his symptoms is night bartending: dark and calm.

The benefit-compensation delay, meanwhile, forced his wife, Shannon, to pull extra work hours. Goodman had to grab additional bar shifts.

“It’s put a lot of stress on our marriage. It’s been rough financially. She works full time. I work nights. We spend a lot of time just seeing each other in passing,” Goodman said, adding that tax-free VA compensation for his combat wounds “would help us actually enjoy a normal life."

As 30,000-plus troops return from Afghanistan by 2014, the VA is completing a wholesale transformation.

Workflow is being redistributed to cities with available hands and reorganized from an “assembly-line system” to a network of “express lanes” for simple claims and “special-operations lanes” for complex claims like brain injuries, said VA’s McCoy. New employees are being trained to work more efficiently.

And the biggest overhaul: VA is switching to digitized benefits claims, replacing “thousands of tons of paper on shelves,” McCoy said. The electronic system is considered the lynchpin to reducing all backlog waits to 125 days or less. Meanwhile, the VA says it has processed more than 1 million disability claims during each of the past three years. 

“We have a sense of urgency,” McCoy said. “We don’t have the luxury of shutting down the shop, building a great system then opening the doors back up,” McCoy said. “We’re flying the plane as we’re changing it.” 

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