Senators got assurances from the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday that the agency would fix the claims backlog in 2015, but VA Secretary Eric Shinseki didn’t offer specific details or timelines on how the VA will measure progress.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, asked Shinseki what “benchmarks have you set and what did VA meet?”
Shinseki did not offer specifics over the course of the two-hour hearing where the question was raised repeatedly by other Senators. Shinseki was joined at the hearing by Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey.
Instead, Shinseki and Hickey told lawmakers that veterans have filed thousands more claims electronically than ever before, and that the volume and quality of those claims continues to improve. At the same time, the Defense Department has committed to delivering a complete health record of separating veterans, including Tricare records, which also will make claims processing faster.
Alex Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said explaining what the department is doing does not answer the senators’ questions.
“But they never give specifics or a detailed plan to include satisfactory benchmarks on how they’re going to deal with getting through the current backlog of paper claims by the date they have set,” he said.
Nicholson said he wants to hear more specifics for ending the backlog, particularly the current 600,000-plus paper-based claims.
Shinseki and other VA officials met with the lawmakers to talk about the fiscal 2014 budget, which at $152.7 billion represents a 10.2 percent increase. Given cuts other departments are taking, 10.2 percent “is huge,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-WV, said.
Shinseki pointed out that when he first came to the VA there was no established period for measuring if a claim was being handled on time.
“The backlog when we arrived was not defined as 125 days,” he said. “We set an ambitious goal … and laid out a plan that is resourced to drive the numbers to end the backlog by 2015.”
Shinseki said VA leadership added to the burden by adding new diseases to the list of those considered presumptive for exposure to Agent Orange and other dioxins widely used in Vietnam. The VA also became more attuned to treating Gulf War veterans for illnesses previous administrations had dismissed.
“I was told by [Vietnam veterans] we were waiting for them to pass [die],” Shinseki said. “I can’t think of a more demeaning circumstance than for a veteran to feel their VA … looked upon their situation like that. I heard the same thing from Gulf War veterans.”
And for all vets, young and old, the VA opened up the post-traumatic stress disorder claims process by accepting exposure to combat as a presumption for the illness.
These decisions suddenly grew the number of claims applicants by the hundreds of thousands.
“I predicted we were going to go up [in claims], but the automation processes are in place to bring them down,” Shinseki said.
Still, depending on where in the U.S. a veteran lives, a claim may take up to 600 days.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, the ranking GOP member on the committee, also pressed Shinseki for benchmarks that would indicate there is a real and working plan.
“The lack of consistent predictions and lack of transparency lead me to question the VA’s stewardship of the taxpayer’s money leading to better outcomes,” Burr said. VA has hired more staff and spent millions on information technology and rolled out dozens of initiatives, Burr said, but there is no visible progress.
The VA’s own projections indicate that at the end of 2014 there will be about 100,000 more claims past the 125-day waiting period than there are now, he said.
“[But] the VA will assure us the situation will be completely under control by sometime in2015,” Burr said.