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WASHINGTON — A Veterans Affairs Department effort to spend six months concentrating on its oldest benefits claims is having some success, but lawmakers are concerned that the improvements might be temporary.
Allison Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, has been under fire from Congress and some veterans groups over the growing claims backlog. She said May 22 that 34,000 claims that have been pending for at least two years have been processed under an initiative launched April 19 to clear the oldest claims first.
For 94 percent of those claims, VA was able to issue a final disability rating, rather than a temporary provisional rating, which the department was prepared to apply to clear the claims and get money into veterans’ hands, Hickey said.
The 34,000 completed claims represent slightly more than half of the oldest claims, she said. When the rest are processed, VA will turn to another 200,000-plus claims been pending for more than a year and will aim to finish those in four months
There is more good news, Hickey told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee: The backlog of claims that has been pending for longer than VA’s processing goal of 125 days has dropped by 50,000 since March.
As of March 20, VA had 873,000 pending claims, including 838,800 related to compensation. The number of compensation claims pending for more than 125 days is 538,700, according to VA data.
Those reports, however, underscore part of the problem: It takes an average of 345 days to complete claims. Quicker progress on the old claims raises questions about whether the decisions were made in haste and are likely to be appealed, as well as why the claims sat for so long if they could have been quickly processed.
“What do you say to a veteran who has waited two, three years, and now gets a permanent decision in 30 days?” asked Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman.
“We don’t find that acceptable, either,” Hickey said.
Miller said he dislikes the idea of making some claims a priority while others wait.
“VA must not shift resources and manpower away from processing new claims just to clear out older ones,” he said. “Every veteran deserves a thorough, fair and timely evaluation of their claim, regardless of when it was filed.”
He also questions whether the effort is just a temporary application of massive resources to the oldest claims while newer ones stagnate.
That effort may make the backlog statistics look better, but “do not get to the heart of the matter, which is how VA plans to improve its workload management processes in the future,” Miller said.
The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group, raised concerns that claims that might be nearly finished have been set aside.
“A claim that required something as minor as a signature in order to be processed for payment to the veteran may now sit on the shelf needlessly for months,” the Legion said in a statement.
Two attorneys whose firm represents veterans appealing disability decisions told lawmakers that tackling older original claims first may not accomplish much.
Glenn Bergmann and Joseph Moore, of the Maryland firm Bergmann and Moore, said focusing on initial claims older than one year doesn’t help veterans who have waited the longest: those who have appealed their decisions. Of the 791,600 compensation claims pending before VA on May 20, about 247,000 are under appeal.
“These are claims that veterans or surviving beneficiaries filed many years ago, in some cases more than a decade,” the two lawyers said in their statement.
The “provisional rating” initiative “exalts speed over quality, and will likely result in additional delay for veterans,” they said, adding that claims workers “are already under tremendous pressure to quickly decide claims, and we expect [VA] to make more mistakes with the arbitrary deadline.”