During a recent dinner at the White House, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to discuss issues we were concerned about with President Obama. For much of this dinner, our conversation focused on issues like the economy, immigration and Second Amendment rights. It was also a good opportunity to highlight other issues that have been flying under the radar but need to be addressed. That’s why I brought up an extremely troubling problem that is affecting hundreds of thousands of our nation’s veterans—the claims backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
At the beginning of May, the VA backlog stood at a staggering 882,023 claims. The wait time for initial disability claims is almost a full year. In the last four years, the number of claims pending for over a year has grown by more than 2,000 percent, despite a 40 percent increase in the VA’s budget. This is an alarming statistic that was referenced in a letter we recently sent to President Obama that outlined our concerns and urged his “direct and public involvement” in this matter.
While budgets for federal agencies have experienced cuts due to sequestration, the amount of funding the sequester-exempt Veterans Administration has received over the past few years has only increased; yet, the size of the backlog of disability claims currently pending continues to grow by massive proportions. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki admits funding is not the issue and set a goal of eliminating this backlog by the end of 2015.
A recent directive issued by the VA central office calls for the oldest cases to be fast tracked through the claims process. The VA is also moving to electronic records processing with the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS). This new tool is expected to help accelerate the claims process and should be installed in all of the regional VA offices by the end of the year. Switching to the new electronic records processing system will serve to greatly reduce wait times, reduce the backlog, and provide the level of service our veteran community deserves.
The Veterans Benefits Administration—the organizational element of the VA that processes disability, pension and other claims for the larger agency—recently announced that it eliminated executive bonuses and will instead reinvest that money to speed up eliminating the backlog. This is a step in the right direction.
Serving our country in uniform is an extremely noble undertaking that all-too-often goes under-appreciated and unnoticed. This is a terrible wrong that we are working hard to correct. We can start by fixing the last place where our veterans should be underserved – the VA.