WASHINGTON -- The time needed to process veterans' disability claims shot up by nearly 40 percent last year despite years of effort by federal officials to streamline and shorten the process, records show.
The times necessary to process education benefits and burial benefits, as well as the time needed to wind through the Department of Veterans Affairs appeals process, also increased in fiscal 2012.
The disability-processing time is closely watched by Congress and veterans' advocates as a measure of VA efficiency. In fiscal 2012, the average days to complete a VA disability compensation or pension claim rose to 262 days, up from 188 days in fiscal 2011, according to a recently completely VA performance report.
The 262-day average is the highest that measure has been in at least the past 20 years for which numbers were available.
The VA's long-term goal is to get the processing time to an average of 90 days.
"The entire system is a mess," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a support and advocacy group. "They've been saying now for 10 years that it'll get better, and it still doesn't get better, and we've seen tremendous frustration from our members in the last few months. It's reached a breaking point."
The VA said it is working to speed its decision-making process and is in the midst of an overhaul of its claims system. It eventually will end its reliance on paper-based processing and reconfigure the way claims move through 56 regional offices that handle them.
"We recognize that from the standpoint of the veterans, they are waiting too long, and that's unacceptable," said Diana Rubens, who helps oversee the VA's regional offices. "We've got to transform how we do things. We know that fixing decades-old problems is not going to be easy."
America's veterans are eligible for a range of benefits, from access to the VA's well-regarded medical system to lifetime payments for disabilities suffered during military service to access to education, life insurance and home loan programs.
The disability benefits are awarded to veterans who suffer physical or mental injuries during their military service. Benefits vary based on the severity of a disability and beginning Saturday range from $129 a month to $2,816 a month for a single veteran.
The VA has struggled for years to reduce the waiting times, and each year it stresses to Congress that fixing the process is a top priority.
In 2010, for example, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee that claim time had improved the previous year, dropping from 179 days to 161 days.
"The progress made in 2009 is a step in the right direction, but it is not nearly enough," he said.
In 2011, he told the same committee that "one of VA's highest priority goals" is to eliminate a backlog of disability cases by 2015 and to ensure all veterans receive a decision in "no more than 125 days."
In 2012, he told the committee that improvements were being made and that the department was aiming for significant improvements in 2013.
"While too many veterans will still be waiting too long for the benefits they have earned, it does represent a significant improvement in performance over the 2012 estimate of 60 percent of claims more than 125 days old, demonstrating that we are on the right path," Shinseki said.
In fact, the recent performance report shows that 66 percent of claims in fiscal 2012 were more than 125 days old. That's up from 36 percent in 2010 and 60 percent in 2011.
And since Shinseki told Congress about the improvement he saw in 2009, average processing time has gone up - from 161 days, to 166 days, to 188 days, to the most recent 262 days.
Even so, Rubens of the VA said the department is on track to meet Shinseki's goals by 2015, given the restructuring in place.
The department has seen a massive increase in claims from veterans in recent years, both younger ones from Iraq and Afghanistan and older ones who have recently been able to file claims on new conditions. Claims the past four years have topped 1 million a year.
While some decisions might be straightforward -- a soldier loses a limb in battle -- others are more complicated, requiring extensive medical reviews and research to tie a disability to the veteran's time in the military.
Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the VA's tardiness and mistake-prone process is "totally unacceptable."
"We know that this is a complex problem and more troops returning home make this job even more difficult," she said in a statement to McClatchy Newspapers. "But Congress has provided VA with the funding and resources it has requested to tackle this problem."
The new performance report shows that the VA has lost ground on many of its other benefits-related goals:
-- The average time to complete an education claim jumped to 31 days from 24 days; the long-term goal is 10 days.
-- The average time to complete a burial claim jumped to 178 days from 113 days; the long-term goal is 21 days.
-- The average time in the appeals system for veterans who dispute their disability compensation decision jumped to 866 days from 747 days; the long-term goal is 400 days.
The annual performance report includes dozens of goals to spur improvement among the VA's health care system, benefits division and cemetery administration.
Of those, the VA highlighted 23 as "key performance measures." The VA met its short-term goals for only 12 of those measures.