Another Broken Promise: VA Has Failed To Eliminate Disability Backlog By Oct 1 And Here Are The Reasons Why

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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The Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to eliminate its claims backlog by Oct. 1, a deadline the department issued in its fiscal year 2014-2020 strategic plan.

But just a month ago on Aug. 24, with the deadline looming, VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey claimed that “Zero for us is not an absolute zero,” in an attempt to modify the goal and save face. There are still 75,000 claims in the backlog as of Sept. 28.

According to Dan Caldwell, legislative director at Concerned Veterans for America (CV4A), said there are several reasons for the massive backlog. The first is that the crash in 2008 affected tens of millions of Americans and forced many civilians into the disability system.

Many veterans who had held off applying because they didn’t think they needed disability started to enter the system because of poor financial prospects and job loss.

Additionally, another factor was the VA’s decision to expand eligibility for Agent Orange-related disability claims and to re-adjudicate many claims that were previously rejected in the 1970s and 1980s. This resulted in an influx of claims from Vietnam-era veterans.

A third reason is that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been applying for disability at higher rates than previous generations. And these vets have also received higher disability ratings. But it’s a myth that these vets are the main reason for the backlog. Rather, Agent Orange adjudication, as well as the economic downturn, contributed significantly more to the backlogs at the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Veterans Health Administration, as well.

Meanwhile, there are still hundreds of thousands of veterans in the claims appeal process. Veterans have ended up in the appeals backlog at much greater rates and often stay there for years. Some have referred to the appeals backlog as the “hidden backlog.”

The VA has brought down the backlog by about 84 percent since 2013, when it hit a peak of 600,000, but the error rate on claims completion has shot up, reaching 30 percent in some locations. The new $500 million high-tech Veterans Benefits Management System, meant to cut down the inefficiency of paper-based claims, has only made the crisis worse, an inspector general report determined.

“If you look at how they’ve been able to reduce the backlog, it’s been by throwing a lot of manpower at it, outsourcing, and hiring more claims workers,” Caldwell said in a conference call with reporters. “They really haven’t fixed some of the bottlenecks that have led to the claims backlog.”

“You really have to question the VA’s claims of success and take it with a grain of salt,” Caldwell added.

But there is a way out of the mess.

Darin Selnick, senior veterans affairs adviser at CV4A, thinks that the first step is to solve the problem of a toxic and corrupt culture. And the way to accomplish that is to pass accountability measures, which make it easier to fire underperforming employees, or employees who wantonly engage in misconduct without consequence. Additionally, Selnick believes, along with The American Legion, that Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey should resign. The VA should allow an independent assessment team to examine VBA records, as the inspector general’s office and the Office of Special Counsel are totally overwhelmed.

The new deadline is now Dec. 31.

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