IG: Veterans Affairs struggles to address benefits backlog

Despite claims by the Veterans Affairs Department that it has made significant progress in reducing its enormous disability claims backlog, the agency’s internal watchdog says the handling of such requests remains troubled.

The VA Office of Inspector General found that thousands of cases were subtracted from the VA case log even though people were still working on them, according to testimony that will be provided to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee at a hearing on Monday night.

Investigators also discovered that the VA did not follow up with veterans who were granted temporary 100 percent disability payments. The VA was supposed to follow up to see if their health had improved. Because it didn’t, the VA has overpaid veterans about $85 million since 2012, and could potentially over-pay another $370 million in the next five years.

The agency’s Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), the office responsible for providing various kinds of monetary compensation to those who served in uniform, “continues to face challenges to ensure veterans receive timely and accurately [sic] benefits and services,” Linda Halliday, an assistant inspector general at the department, will say in testimony to the panel.

Halliday’s office found serious problems with a special initiative the department began in 2013 to provide benefits to veterans who have been waiting to receive them for longer than two years. Roughly 7,800 of the older cases were subtracted from the VA backlog, even though processors were still working on them, according to Halliday.

Halliday also said that other processing responsibilities within the department have suffered because so much emphasis had been placed on whittling down the compensation backlog.

VA Secretary Erik Shinseki resigned earlier this summer after internal reports showed thousands of veterans had waited months to get appointments at VA facilities. The reports also said that VA officials had sought to change waiting lists to make it appear veterans were not having to wait long periods for care.

Backlogged claims have become a political flashpoint in recent years as the department struggles to meet an increasing patient load. 

A new generation of veterans has come home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seeking care, putting new demands on the VA. The department has also amended its compensation rules for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or diseases related to Agent Orange, something that has exacerbated the backload.

The VA department under Shinseki had set out a 14-day rule, meaning patients were supposed to get an appointment within 14 days of asking for one.

The VA department on Monday said its benefits office had completed one million disability claims and is on track to complete 1.3 million by the end of the fiscal year.

“VBA has made significant progress toward eliminating the backlog, but there is more work to be done to reach our goal of processing all disability claims within 125 days at a 98-percent accuracy level in 2015,” said Allison Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, in a statement.

Hickey is also set to testify at Monday night’s hearing.