VA Officials Differ on Success of Backlog Claims Reduction at Hearing

July 15, 2014 in News

On Monday, lawmakers on the House Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony from federal officials regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs’ backlog of disability claims, the Washington Post‘s “Federal Eye” reports (Hicks, “Federal Eye,” Washington Post, 7/15).

Background

The Obama administration has set a goal of eliminating the backlog of disability claims by 2015.

Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said that three major problem areas contributed to the backlog:

  • Large amounts of paper-based claims and health records that need to be converted to electronic format;
  • A need to sync VA’s records with the Department of Defense’s records; and
  • A growing number of veterans who are qualifying for disability coverage.

In late March, the Department of Veterans Affairs released data showing it had reduced a backlog of pending benefits claims by 44% since March 2013.

According to VA, the number of claims that have been pending for longer than 125 days had dropped to 344,000, from a high of about 611,000 last year (iHealthBeat, 4/2).

VA Undersecretary Allison Hickey’s Testimony

Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, said at the hearing that the benefits backlog had decreased by 55% from the peak high to about 275,000 currently (Daly, AP/U-T San Diego, 7/15).

Further, Hickey highlighted the agency’s progress toward a goal of handling all claims within 125 days of their initial file date at a 98% accuracy rate (Lawder, Reuters, 7/14). She noted that VA claims processors completed about 1.2 million compensation claims last year (Zoroya, USA Today, 7/14).

VA Assistant Inspector General Linda Halliday’s Testimony

However, VA Assistant Inspector General Linda Halliday in her testimony said that she did not trust the VA’s statistics, AP/U-T San Diego reports (AP/U-T San Diego, 7/15).

Specifically, Halliday said that her office found more than 7,800 disability claims that had been pending for more than two years were removed from the agency’s backlog without being completed, which resulted in $40.4 million in improper payments during that timeframe (Reuters, 7/14).

Halliday also cited a recently released report from the Office of the Inspector General that found the Veterans Benefits Administration incorrectly processed 17,600 of 56,500 claims during a two-month project that began in April 2013. The project’s goal was to eliminate any claims that were older than 24 months (Brewin, NextGov, 7/14).

In addition, the report found VA has paid more than $85 million to veterans who did not have medical evidence proving they were eligible for disability benefits (AP/U-T San Diego, 7/15).

Halliday also told lawmakers that her office has received — and, in at least one case, substantiated — ┬ácomplaints of data manipulation at VA offices around the country.

Lawmaker Comments

During the hearing, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) questioned the VA’s goal of processing claims within 125 days and criticized the agency for using inappropriate record-keeping methods to create the “appearance of success.”

He said, “There is not a corner that VBA leadership will not cut nor a statistic that they will not manipulate to lay claim to a hollow victory,” adding, “What we all want to see, both my Republican and Democrat colleagues, is progress, not deception” (Washington Post, 7/15).

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