August 28, 2015
historic milestone was reached this week with the VA’s announcement that
initial claims for veterans’ disabilities and survivor benefits dropped to
98,535. This is an 84% reduction from the high water mark of 611,000 claims in
the pipeline in March 2013.
five years ago, former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced that the VA would
eliminate the backlog of initial claims that were waiting for more than 125
days for a decision, by the end of 2015. Now, the VA appears to be in reach of
to the VA, the quality of the decisions remains high as the numbers have
dropped. The accuracy of disability decisions has climbed steadily from 83% in
2011 to 91% today. The accuracy of “individual medical issues” within a claim
is now at 96%. Rated against eight distinct “error categories” – such as
correct effective date, correct decision related to military service, etc. – VA
arrives at the right decision 98% of the time.
commends VA Under Secretary for Benefits, Allison Hickey, for building the
transformation strategy that led to these encouraging results. In many
appearances before Congress, Hickey referred to upgrades in “people, process
and technology” as at the heart of her strategy.
almost all claims are managed and decided on a digital platform, eliminating cumbersome
paper files. Mandatory overtime for many claims workers has been the practice
in recent years. Hickey’s office also negotiated an arrangement with the
Pentagon to certify the completeness of medical records for separating and
retiring servicemembers and speeding their delivery electronically to decision
the way, the VA welcomed the collaboration of veteran and military service
organizations, including MOAA, to improve the process further. Nearly half of
all claims made to VA and 90% of claims filed by MOAA are Fully Developed
Claims, which VA has credited with expediting decisions on initial claims.
we there, yet? Not at all. The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA)
just announced that it was suspending mandatory overtime for adjudicators. It
remains to be seen if the progress achieved to date can be sustained with
reduced time devoted to the backlog. The VA is banking on its electronic
platform, the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), to support high
quality production, even as the number and complexity of veterans’ claims
continues to rise.
the VA and Congress need to step up on the thorny problem of reducing the
backlog of appealed claims that go through a complex process. More often than
not, the Board of Veterans Appeals sends these claims back to a VA regional
office for further work.
claims take on average over three years to resolve. A number of studies
demonstrate that in the end, veterans win much more often on appeal than the
government, indicating that the process is flawed. Veterans are getting the
wrong decision out of the gate.
challenges include slower decisions for National Guard and Reserve veterans who
served on active duty, as well as comparably lower ratings on their claims for
the same conditions filed by their active duty counterparts. This may be the
result of incomplete documentation of service-related conditions at separation,
and other factors. Women veterans also tend to receive lower ratings than their
male counterparts for similar conditions.
there are still areas where improvement is needed, there is clear cause to
celebrate significant progress in battling the backlog of claims that has
bedeviled the VA for too long. MOAA will continue to work with our VSO
partners, Congress, and the VA to ensure that the gains made so far lead to
further progress for our nation’s service men and women who have “borne the
Director of Government Relations, Col. Bob Norton, USA (Ret) said, “We feel
very confident that Under Secretary Hickey will continue to drive progress on
the backlog going forward, including reductions in appealed and non-rating