VA still buried in claims backlog

Claims processing at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) remains slow and inefficient despite numerous efforts to reform the process during the past several years, witnesses told members of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Benefits at a hearing held in El Paso, Texas on Friday.

Six years ago, VBA launched an aggressive effort to improve its claims processing accuracy by using case management techniques and by reorganizing its field offices into clusters meant to collaborate with one another. VBA oversees the processing of veterans' benefits and pays out nearly $25 billion each year.

But several stumbling blocks kept VBA from achieving its goal. At the end of March, it was taking the agency an average of 224 days to process a claim. Claims are for such things as disability compensation, pensions and survivors' benefits. There are more than 400,000 cases, not counting appeals, still pending in VBA's backlog, twice the number of backlogged cases in fiscal 1997. The agency is now struggling to reduce those figures to 100 days and 250,000 cases, respectively, a goal set by Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi.

VBA directly attributes the increased numbers to the 2000 Veterans Claims Assistance Act (VCAA), which provides veterans with more assistance in preparing their claims, and the recent decision to allow benefits for Vietnam veterans with diabetes, said Robert Epley, VBA's associate deputy undersecretary for policy program management.

Still, an increase in employees and work hours at VBA will result in increased productivity and the backlog will begin to diminish, Epley said.

Recent initiatives launched to tackle the ever-growing pile of claims include: the creation of a special team to close out claims more than one year old; the addition of production goals to regional office performance plans; and, the establishment of specialized processing teams at each veterans service center.

"We believe that our current strategies will not only further our efforts to reach the goal of 100 days for claims processing time, but also serve to improve our business practices," Epley told lawmakers.

However, Cynthia Bascetta, director of veterans health and benefit issues at the General Accounting Office, said in her testimony that stepping up the claims turnaround time at VBA depends on more than just increasing production and reducing inventory.

"While these initiatives seem promising, it is unclear the extent to which they will improve timeliness," Bascetta said, citing as an example the time spent waiting for evidence needed to complete a claim. "VBA needs to continue to reduce delays in the process."

Bascetta said that officials at some of the regional offices are focusing on easier cases in order to meet new production goals, which may cause older cases to remain unresolved. Information systems improvements are also needed to help deliver improvements with claims processing, Bascetta said.

"After 16 years, VBA is still experiencing delays in implementing its replacement benefit delivery system," Bascetta told lawmakers.

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