The VA's backlogs epidemic

After climbing to nearly one million claims in queue, almost 70 percent of which had been pending for more than 125 days (some for years), the VA finally began making a dent in its massive pile of backed-up veteran disability, pension, and survivor claims. The VA continued its promising downward backlogged claims trend for 12 weeks until the week before last, when the total number of backlogged VA claims jumped back up enough to wipe out the progress it has made the week prior.

You would not necessarily even know this, however, since in the same week the VA stopped reporting the total number of claims backlogged and elected to only report totals and aggregate backlog statistics for a smaller subset of claims.

But overall the VA is still making progress toward ending its claims backlog, and we at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America certainly hope that this general trend continues. However, as the VA makes one step forward in one area, it is making two steps backward in another, as the backlog of claims appeals is now growing to a staggering level. And if it turns out that the VA cut corners in quality in order to more quickly reduce its overall claims backlog under pressure from Congress and the public, we'll likely soon see that appeals backlog grow to an even more staggering level.

The VA's Under Secretary for Benefits, General Allison Hickey, wants Congress to change the law governing the appeals process so that new information regarding a veteran's claim cannot be added to the evidentiary record on appeal, which would allow the court to simply consider whether a claims decision was decided correctly or not. That, after all, is the theoretical purpose of an appellate court, and a claim could always be sent back to the Veterans Benefits Administration and considered anew - perhaps with priority - if new information becomes available.

But even changes such as this one are unlikely to be a panacea for the growing veteran claims appeals backlog, which was recently the subject of its own hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Deeper problems exist within the VA claims appeals process that contribute to that pipeline's backlog, just as a wide array of pathologies within the VA's management and culture helped create the initial claims decision backlog.

Equally frustrating for Congress, however, is yet another growing VA backlog - the VA's backlog of information requests from members of Congress. The perceived lack of transparency from the department has thwarted attempts by the veterans affairs committees as well as outside watchdog and advocacy groups to both hold the VA accountable and help it get the expertise, resources, and solutions it needs to solves its myriad problems

As a result, the House Veterans Affairs Committee has launched a dedicated new section on its website called Trials in Transparency, which now publicly tracks the nearly one hundred backlogged information requests that the Committee has out to the VA.

The Department of Defense fundamentally relies on meeting standards and basic accountability as cornerstones of doctrine and policy. So it is disappointing that once service members transition to become veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs with which they must deal for care and benefits is held up as the epitome of failing to meet standards and a lack of transparency.

Congress, the American people, and most importantly, our nation's veterans deserve better.

Nicholson is the legislative director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).