Senators to VA: Provide Plan to Fix Claim Appeal Backlog

Chairman Sanders Asks Under Secretary for Benefits Hickey for Plan by End of January 2014.

Last week’s Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC) began with good news: the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) has reduced the backlog of new claims by 36 percent to less than 400,000.  President Barack Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki deserve credit for attacking this serious problem created by tidal waves of claims related to Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, the subject and the tone of the December 11, 2013 SVAC hearing changed when the subject of claim appeals arose.  SVAC Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was concerned about VA’s apparent neglect of appealed claims that languish at VA an average of five years.  “VA must focus on the appellate process. This is a large part of the claims system, and it is not receiving the attention it deserves,” Sanders said in his opening statement at the hearing.

Sanders directed most of his comments at the hearing towards Allison Hickey, VA’s Under Secretary for Benefits.  “I know VA has been piloting a number of ideas in the Houston Regional Office, but I think we need some increased leadership attention on these efforts in order to make some real progress on appeals,” he said.  Sanders concluded by asking Hickey to get back to him by the end of January with how she plans the  improve the processing of the appellate workload at the VA’s Regional Offices.

VA Successfully Reduces Backlog of New Claims

As Army Times reported, Hickey told Senators that reaching the Obama administration’s goal of eliminating the backlog in 2015 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.”

Another important point made by Army Times last week is that 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, according to Senator Sanders.

Meanwhile, as Reno, Nevada news outlet RGJ.com pointed out, Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) told the Senate hearing that Nevada’s Veterans wait on average of 433 days to have their claims completed.  That’s the longest wait time in the nation.  “The VA has a 1945 process,” Heller said. “They need a 21st Century benefits delivery system for our nation’s Veterans.”

Mistakes Continue as Major VA Challenge

Mistakes are another problem because they cause appeals.  As of December 16, 2013, more than 266,000 Veterans and their families are waiting for VA to decide an appealed disability claim.  As Mark Flatten at the Washington Examiner reported, VA errors continue to haunt veterans seeking disability benefits because of the many years of additional delay that cause frustration for Veterans and their families.

The SVAC hearing was attended by nine Senators, a sign of significant interest in the unmet needs of our Veterans and families.  During the hearing Under Secretary Hickey reported VA has approved nearly 400,000 new PTSD disability claims in the past four years (an increase from 355,000 to 750,000 from 2009 to 2013).  Bergmann & Moore follows this issue closely and will keep you updated on VA’s plan to improve the processing of disability claim appeals expected to be delivered to Senators in January 2014.

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