VA cites progress on backlog; Congress disagrees

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WASHINGTON (AP) - The Department of Veterans Affairs says it has made “tremendous progress” in reducing a disability claims backlog that reached above 600,000 early last year. Members of Congress and the department’s assistant inspector general don’t believe it.

Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, told Congress that at the insistence of officials from President Barack Obama on down, the benefits backlog has been whittled down to about 275,000 - a 55 percent decrease from the peak.

Hickey’s claims were met with disbelief by some. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told her flatly that he thinks the VA’s numbers are inaccurate.

“I don’t believe anybody at the table is telling the truth from the VA,” Miller said at a contentious hearing that lasted more than five hours Monday night. “I believe you are hiding numbers.”

Asked if she trusted numbers produced by VA, the agency’s assistant inspector general, Linda Halliday, said no.

“I don’t want to say I trust them,” Halliday said.

In a report issued earlier Monday, Halliday said that in its rush to reduce the backlog of disability claims, the VA has made benefits payments of more than $85 million to veterans who lacked adequate medical evidence that they deserve them. Without improvements, the VA could make unsupported payments to veterans totaling about $371 million over the next five years for claims of 100 percent disability alone, Halliday said.

The IG’s office also found widespread problems at VA regional offices in Philadelphia and Baltimore, including mail bins full of disability claims and associated evidence that had not been electronically scanned for three years.

“Improved financial stewardship at the agency is needed,” Halliday told the House veterans panel. “More attention is critical to minimize the financial risk of making inaccurate benefit payments.”

Special initiatives designed to remove older claims and speed processing of new claims are worthwhile, Halliday said, but in some cases they “have had an adverse impact on other workload areas” such as managing appeals filed by veterans and reducing overpayments to veterans.

Hickey defended her agency, saying the department has spent the past four years redesigning and streamlining the way it delivers benefits and services to veterans.

Last year, the Veterans Benefits Administration, which she oversees, completed a record 1.2 million disability rating claims, Hickey said. The agency is on track to complete more than 1.3 million rating claims this year and pay a total of $67 billion in benefits - about half the VA’s budget, Hickey said. More than 90 percent of the claims are being processed electronically, she said.

The VA has long struggled to cope with disability claims. The backlog intensified in recent years as more solders returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the VA made it easier for Vietnam-era veterans to get disability compensation stemming from exposure to Agent Orange.

The VA has set a goal to process all claims within 125 days at 98 percent accuracy in 2015, but so far has fallen far short. The agency now processes most claims within 154 days - or more than five months - at a 90 percent accuracy rate, compared with an accuracy rate of 86 percent three years ago, Hickey said. At one point, veterans were forced to wait an average nine to 10 months for their disability claims to be processed.

“It has never been acceptable to VA … that our veterans are experiencing long delays in receiving the benefits they have earned and deserve,” Hickey said, adding that she was “saddened and offended” by related problems that have plagued VA health centers in recent months. Investigators have found long waits for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, and falsified records to cover up the delays.

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