Opinion: VA is improving benefits delivery

Today, veterans are coming to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in record numbers for the benefits and services they have earned through their service to our country. That’s especially true of the disability compensation benefit.  Compared to 2001, the number of disability claims we have received annually over the past four years is nearly double – well over 1 million claims a year. Too many veterans have been caught in a backlog of claims that is taking VA too long to process.  But that is changing.

In the past seven months, we at VA, and specifically the employees at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), over 50 percent of whom are veterans themselves, have made significant progress in reducing the backlog of claims, improving the accuracy of disability ratings, and providing hundreds of thousands of decisions to veterans who have waited the longest.  

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As of this week, the backlog of claims – defined as those pending for more than 125 days – has been reduced by about 211,000 claims, or 34 percent, from a peak of 611,000 in late March to about 400,000 this month.  The total inventory of claims, currently around 700,000, has declined 20 percent from a high point of 884,000 in July 2012. 

At the same time, the quality of rating decisions has been improving. When I arrived as the Under Secretary for Benefits in 2011, the accuracy of claims was 83 percent.  As a result of retooled training and starting quality review teams who provide real-time feedback to raters, we have increased claim-level accuracy to 90 percent. We’ve also implemented a system to assess the accuracy of disability ratings for each of the individual medical conditions our veterans submit in a claim file – some of which have as many as 20 conditions cited.  Right now we are 96.7 percent accurate at the medical issue-level.    

Our approach to reducing the backlog has been to start with claims for veterans who have waited the longest and work our way forward.  From April to June, claims processors at VBA’s 56 regional benefits offices completed over 67,000 claims that had been pending in the inventory for more than two years. Over ninety-nine percent of that category is now complete and has been eliminated from the backlog.  In June, we shifted our focus to completing all veterans claims that had been waiting over one year, including those claims that would be older than a year by the end of October. As of today, VBA has completed 93 percent of this category of oldest claims – reducing it from 512,000 to 31,000 – resulting in quality decisions for hundreds of thousands of veterans who have waited the longest.  At the same time, VBA continues to prioritize claims for homeless veterans, those experiencing extreme financial hardship, the terminally ill, former Prisoners of War, Medal of Honor recipients, and veterans filing Fully Developed Claims (FDC).

As we have undertaken this initiative to prioritize those Veterans waiting the longest, VA continues to grant the majority of claims it receives.  In fact, during this “oldest first” initiative, the proportion of claims decisions that resulted in benefits being granted has remained on par with historical averages—between 65 and 70 percent.   

There are two reasons for the increased productivity and quality.  First is the determination and dedication of the employees who process benefits for Veterans.  From May through October, VBA claims processors worked 20 hours of mandatory overtime per month, which brought about significant increases in daily processing totals.  All overtime spending for VBA was halted during the two-week government shutdown in October.  VBA has re-established the mandatory overtime directive through 23 November, and it will be back in place in 2014 as well, assuming continued funding.  When not performing mandatory overtime hours, many VA employees are working optional overtime.  In fact, on this Veterans Day holiday, many VA employees will choose to honor veterans by continuing to process their claims.  Having talked to these employees around the country, over half of whom are Veterans themselves, it’s clear that no one wants to eliminate the backlog more than they do.  

A second factor is the ongoing implementation of VA’s Transformation Plan – a series of redesigned training and organizational processes, enhanced technologies and the fielding of the electronic paperless claims processing platform, the Veterans Benefit Management System (VBMS).  The number of claims being worked electronically in VBMS is growing daily as all new claims received in paper form are sent for scanning and electronic upload. Also, more veterans are submitting claims electronically through the joint VA/Defense Department portal eBenefits.gov, cutting the time it takes VA to receive, sort and direct hard copy claim forms and supporting documents. This growing digitized claims inventory allows VBA to centrally manage the national workload and electronically direct priority claims across its network of regional offices to optimize available processing capacity – a critical aspect of VBA’s transformation. 

We are encouraged by the progress, but we know there’s much more work to be done.  VA greatly appreciates the investments in claims processing improvements provided by the president and Congress over the past 4 years. We owe it to the veterans, their families and Survivors, who have sacrificed so much for our freedoms as a nation, to provide the best possible service.

Hickey is the under secretary for Benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs.