Since pressure was applied by veteran service organizations last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs has claimed that it is not only shrinking the backlog numbers but has raised the accuracy rate of the compensation claims it has completed, to where it's now at 97 percent.
But the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee on Wednesday expressed serious doubt on that assertion, pointing out that The American Legion and the National Veterans Legal Services program found the VA's error rate significantly higher.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, said the Legion review put the rate at 55 percent and the NVLS between 30 and 40 percent.
"Are they wrong?" Burr asked VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey.
"Senator Burr, it is an apples and oranges discussion," Hickey said. "There is a very different way the [Inspector General] and others look at the issue than we do … they are right for the way they look at it and we are right for the way we measure it."
Burr said the significant differences in the numbers do not compute.
"Should this committee believe there is any [veterans' service organization] in American that believe the accuracy or the quality is at 97 percent right now?" he asked.
"I asked a very simple question: Are they wrong?" Burr pushed again, and then answered his own question when Hickey did not reply. "And I guess the answer is 'Yes' because you're saying your statistic is different from what their review has [found]."
Hickey went into the Senate hearing to report that the VA had reduced the claims backlog -- those first-time claims not decided within 125 days -- by 36 percent by March.
The current backlog is about 395,000, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said at the opening of the hearing.
That number is up to 5,000 more than it was previously, with Sanders attributing the backsliding to time and work lost during the government shutdown in the first half of October.
Hickey said the progress the VA has made is owed to increased employee productivity and initiatives to get the department out of the paper era into the digital. She said the Veterans Benefits Management System, its electronic claims' handling program, is now operational -- six months ahead of schedule -- in all 56 VA regional benefits offices.
"We know there is much more work to be done to reach our goal of eliminating the disability claims backlog in 2015," she said. "But I'm encouraged that the improved tools and processes we've put in place so far are having a real impact so that we may better serve our nation's Veterans, their survivors and their families."
Sanders also granted that the VA's backlog can be attributed in part to the department only beginning to transition to a digital system in 2009, and the agency's decision in 2010 to expand the number of presumptive medical conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure.
That immediately brought in hundreds of thousands of new claims.
But Sanders also pressed Hickey on the backlog in appealed claims. These numbers are distinct from the backlog in first-time applications.
Currently, the average wait time for a decision on an appealed claim is 866 days, Sanders said.
"This is a large part of the claims system that is not getting the attention it deserves, "Sanders said, then told Hickey to get back to the committee "by the end of January on how you intend to improve the processing of these appellate workloads."
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