The Veterans Affairs Department’s top benefits official predicted Wednesday that the backlog of almost 400,000 benefits claims will continue to drop in 2014 and is on course to be eliminated in 2015.
The backlog — defined as claims that have been pending for more than 125 days — has dropped by more than one-third since March, while the accuracy of claims decisions is improving, Allison Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, said Wednesday in testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“VA has made significant progress,” Hickey said.
The backlog, now standing at about 395,000 claims, had increased in early December by about 5,000 claims over two weeks, the result of a temporary end to mandatory overtime for claims processors. VA officials intend to return to required overtime of about 20 hours a month for such employees in 2014.
While “on track” to achieve an Obama administration goal of eliminating the backlog in 2015, Hickey said reaching that goal ultimately will depend on whether there is adequate funding in VA’s 2014 budget, particularly for information technology programs.
Hickey also acknowledged that not everyone see the progress being made. “We still recognize veterans are waiting too long,” she said. “No one sees this as acceptable.”
There was little praise for VA at the Senate hearing and lots of criticism about continuing complaints over errors in claims as well as in the lengthy claims appeal process. While VA measures its backlog by counting claims pending more than 125 days for an initial decision, there is no similar measurement of the backlog of claims under appeal, where the average wait is 866 days.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who heads the Senate veterans’ committee, said he expects a report from VA by the end of January on how to improve the appeals process.
A major concern for lawmakers is independent reports from the VA inspector general and from veterans organizations about the quality of work.
Hickey said claims accuracy has increased from 83 percent in June 2011, when she arrived, to about 90 percent today, but Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the committee’s ranking Republican, said he did not believe her and does not think any veterans service organization that helps veterans file claims would agree that only 10 percent of claims decisions contain errors.
The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans’ group, has told Congress that its spot checks have shown error rates of as high as 50 percent on some claims.
A key reason for the dramatic drop in the claims backlog is an initiative to tackle the oldest claims awaiting an initial decision. Hickey said 99.9 percent of claims two years or longer have been completed, as have 96 percent of the claims older than one year. This initiative has resulted in the processing of 562,000 claims.