- Washington Guardian - Sunday, November 11, 2012

It was one of the simplest, most poignant promises Barack Obama made in 2008 in his first campaign for the White House: he would fulfill “a sacred trust with our veterans” by significantly reducing the government’s lengthy backlog of pending claims for disability coverage. The goal: all veterans could get a decision on disability claims within 125 days.

But on this Veterans Day as Obama prepares for the advent of his second term, the president’s pledge not only remains unfulfilled, it has become a farcical rallying cry for sick veterans, their widows and their advocates who now can wait as long as one to two years for disability decisions from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Records obtained by the Washington Guardian show as of Nov. 5, the day before Obama won re-election, 558,230 of the 820,106 veterans seeking disability coverage had their claims pending for more than the 125-day target. That’s a whopping 68.1 percent, or nearly double the 36 percent rate in the summer of 2010.

And there’s tens of thousands of more cases pending in various forms of appeal, where decisions can take months or years to resolve. For instance, the average time it takes to resolve a case before the Veterans Appeals Board is 883 days.

In short, Obama made it worse, not better. The reason is because the new claims workers his administration hired did not keep pace with the crush of new demand from Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans or the new coverage areas authorized by the VA in 2010 for Vietnam veterans. 

“In the last two years it has gotten far worse than it has ever been,” said Walter J. Tafe, the director of the Burlington County Military and Veterans Service in New Jersey who has helped thousands of veterans or their widows navigate the VA bureaucracy to secure benefits they’re owed.

Tafe said he sympathizes with the regional VA workers, who work hard but simply don’t have the resources to keep up with new demand. He added that he seldom if ever sees a case, even a simple one, resolved within the 125-day target the VA set.

“I’m happy if we can get it done in a year. And that’s a simple case. Complicated cases, it can be 18 months or 24 months, easily,” Tafe said in an interview with the Washington Guardian.

And as VA has tried to speed up work to keep the backlog from growing out of hand, its error rate has soared. The VA inspector general told Congress this summer that it found an error rate on high-risk disability claims of 30 percent – more than double the agency’s goals – meaning veterans can be approved or denied benefits incorrectly. An analysis of appeals cases by the Board of Veterans Appeals suggested that error could even be higher, at least in contested cases. It grants appeals or remands cases back to the VA about three quarters if the times, mostly because of mistakes.

The reasons for delays and errors, the VA admits, are many and complicated. The VA added hundreds of new benefits processors  in an effort to meet Obama’s pledge, but it was quickly overrun by the growth of claims from returning Iraq and Afghan war veterans.

And then, the administration made a politically popular decision in 2010 to approve a slew of new illnesses to be covered under VA disability claims for Vietnam War veterans affected by Agent Orange. But planning and resources didn’t keep up, and the system has essentially crumbled under the weight of the new burdens.

“Too many veterans still wait too long. That’s unacceptable,” VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey acknowledged in September.

And so the VA has set a new goal and strategy. It’s redeployed 1,200 employees to work on backlogged claims, increased oversight, significantly increased training of employees and begun a transition from an old paper system to a paperless, digital processing system. The workers who underwent new training have been able to reduce their error rates, the VA said, citing one hopeful sign for the future.

Hickey says the new strategy should be a “lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog.”

“VA’s goal is to process all disability claims within 125 days, at a 98 percent accuracy level, and eliminate the claims backlog in 2015,” the agency said in a statement to the Washington Guardian.

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