After a long battle, VA’s backlog finally winds down

“I don’t think she’s equipped to handle the problems that exist out there,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) told the Center for Investigative Reporting in March 2013. “I think she is overwhelmed, and I would call for a replacement.”

Miller was referring to Allison Hickey, a former Air Force general and VA’s Under Secretary for Benefits. He was angry about the more than 600,000 disability claims filed by veterans and stuck in the VA system longer than 125 days—in what had become known as the “backlog.” 

Miller wasn’t the only one calling for change at the Department of Veterans Affairs on account of the massive bottleneck. At TIME, reporter Joe Klein wrote that VA Secretary Eric ShinsekiEric ShinsekiVeterans group blasts VA secretary, despite words of regret Cruz: VA secretary 'should resign' VA secretary refuses to apologize for Disney comments MORE should “take the fall” for the “infamous” backlog. Even The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart jumped in, launching a series of segments called “The Red Tape Diaries.”

As chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Miller’s demand for new leadership made sense to many. It wasn’t hard to draw a direct line from veterans suffering in the growing backlog to the person responsible for shrinking it. 

But there was more to the story—and much of the criticism was misplaced. In reality, most structural improvements required for VA’s disability claims process had already been implemented by the time Miller called for Hickey’s resignation in early 2013.

As department officials had predicted, the backlog began to plunge shortly after Miller’s comments. Since then, the decline of the backlog has only accelerated, plummeting from more than 608,000 claims in 2013 to fewer than 82,000 claims now.

So how did that happen? 

Beginning in January 2010, Shinseki’s leadership team drew up a strategy to automate the antiquated, paper-based process which veterans used to file disability claims. Their intent was to end the backlog by the end of 2015.

By June 2010, planning for an automated system was complete and the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) was on its way to reality. 

A year later, Hickey took charge of the program. It took nearly three years, but by December 2012, VA was fielding VBMS department-wide, in all 56 regional processing offices in the United States.

In February 2013, VA began accepting fully electronic disability claim applications from veterans. And while outside criticism of the VA backlog reached a crescendo the next month, by May 2013, the automated claims system was working in more than 90 percent of VA regional offices. By late summer, VBMS was online nationwide, dropping the average wait for a decision by nearly three months—from a peak of 282 days to 198. 

Despite this progress, very few in Congress, in the media, or in veterans advocacy groups were willing to acknowledge that the fix was underway.

Nevertheless, by May 2014, the VA disability claims backlog was only half the size it had been at its peak. A year later, it had shrunk by 75 percent and had long since fallen out of the headlines. Currently, the backlog is at its lowest point ever—having shrunk 87 percent with fewer than 82,000 backlogged claims remaining. The average wait for a claim decision is now less than 100 days. 

As Shinseki promised nearly six years ago, VA remains on track to reach functional zero on the claims backlog before the end of 2015. This can’t be understated—and there are several lessons to be gained from what has become a government success story.

First, by placing the right leaders in government, and then giving them the time, space, and resources to do the job, the job will get done. Government bureaucracies are not impossible puzzle boxes that stump America’s finest minds. It just takes leadership that understands government is not a business, it is not Silicon Valley, and it is not Capitol Hill. 

Second, patience is essential. Many people, including those on Congressional oversight committees, don’t have a clear understanding of how long successful projects take in large government bureaucracies. While this one took six years, the fact is that launching new programs before they’re fully baked often leads to less-than-ideal outcomes. Prime examples include the debacle in 2013 and the 2009 rollout of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. (Both of which were ultimately successful.)

Finally, the end of VA’s backlog is another reason to revisit the “government bureaucrat” caricature. While there may always be poor performing federal employees, the majority are innovative and committed. In the case of the VA backlog, its success or failure was ultimately in the hands of VA claims examiners (53 percent of whom are veterans themselves). They’re the ones who learned the new system and put in the overtime each month. They’re the ones who will process 1.4 million claims this year. There’s a lot to be said for that. 

These days, Miller isn’t saying much about calling for Hickey’s resignation. In August, he simply noted that with nearly 100,000 veterans “still languishing on the initial claims backlog alone, it is still far too early to pat ourselves on the back.”

That’s certainly true, though it’s a bit of misdirection—as no one at VA actually seems to be doing that. 

VA is far from perfect, but hopefully Miller will be a bit more contrite and allow himself to congratulate at least some VA employees when the backlog fades into history later this fall. They deserve it.

Friedman is the CEO of The McPherson Square Group. In his 15-year career, he has served three separate stints in government—in the Army, at the Department of Veterans Affairs and, most recently, as the deputy assistant secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Follow him on Twitter at @BFriedmanDC.