The VA backlog: Can we trust the numbers?

It was around this time last year that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) started to feel the heat for the massive backlog of veterans waiting for their disability and compensation claims to be processed.

It was an issue Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) had been sounding the alarm on since 2012. But the criticism reached critical mass in 2013, as the backlog hit a historic high in March of last year, before beginning to subside.

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So where are we today? The claims backlog may have fallen off the front pages (for which the VA leadership is no doubt thankful), but veterans’ advocacy organizations continue to keep a close eye on the progress.

Which is good, because while there are signs that progress has been made at reducing the waiting list and the long processing delays, the VA’s performance is still a long, long way from healthy. For example, in the VA’s weekly report published Monday, we can see that last week, three of the key progress measures grew:  

Total Pending Claims: 677,584 (+1,693)

Backlogged Claims: 398,080 (+958)

Appealed Claims: 269,961 (+2,588)

Now, if the number of pending and backlogged claims has been reduced, that suggests a positive trend. But it’s important to keep an eye on the growth in the number of appeals—some observers say that the increasing appeals indicate the VA is playing games with the numbers in order to make their weekly, monthly and quarterly reports look better.

That’s what some veterans’ community leaders told Military.com:

Longtime allies of the Department of Veterans Affairs directed some tough-love at the agency on Wednesday, accusing its leadership of playing games with Congress and creating policies to make the claims backlog look healthier than it is.

Panelists drawn from several veterans service organizations criticized the VA for defining claims in order to make the backlog appear small and shrinking, and for proposing to process some claims faster than others as it pushes its electronic system.

"What you see here is a cold-blooded assessment by VA officials that if they cannot achieve their goals under the current standards, they will change the rules to achieve their goals," said Gerald Manar, deputy director of National Veterans Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars. 

It wouldn’t be the first time that a government agency turned to “juking the stats” to make it appear that performance is better than it is. But it’s particularly egregious when the needs and well-being of our nation’s veterans are sacrificed on the altar of public relations and bureaucratic expediency.

The good news? There’s a bipartisan effort under way in Congress to demand greater accountability from the VA’s leadership, which would go a long way toward addressing these shortfalls.  Today, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs introduced the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Management Accountability Act of 2014. This legislation would give VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and future VA secretaries complete authority to fire or demote VA Senior Executive Service or equivalent employees based on performance and finally hold the VA accountable and address a problem that worsens by the day. This is a step in the right direction and CVA gives full support.

Selnick, a U.S. Air Force veteran and former assistant to the VA, is Concerned Veterans for America’s top VA advisor.