Longtime allies of the Department of Veterans Affairs directed some tough-love at the agency on Wednesday, accusing its leadership of playing games with Congress and creating policies to make the claims backlog look healthier than it is.
Panelists drawn from several veterans service organizations criticized the VA for defining claims in order to make the backlog appear small and shrinking, and for proposing to process some claims faster than others as it pushes its electronic system.
"What you see here is a cold-blooded assessment by VA officials that if they cannot achieve their goals under the current standards, they will change the rules to achieve their goals," said Gerald Manar, deputy director of National Veterans Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Diana Rubens, VA deputy under secretary for field operations, later opened her testimony by noting that the VA has reduced its claims backlog by 35 percent.
However, Manar had already testified that the VA excludes veterans dependents and claims appeals from its backlog claims.
"Today there are over 1.7 million compensation, pension and education claims and appeals. Instead of fully fixing the problem, VA leaders have redefined them," he said. "Since VA couldn't reduce the entire 1.7 million by 2015, they decided to define the workload as only disability claims requiring rating action."
The 700,000 disability claims currently pending represent just 41 percent of outstanding claims, he said.
Focusing on disability claims that require a rating decision resulted in the VA not processing 60 percent of its overall claims. As a result the inventory of claims filed by dependents of veterans has grown from about 40,000 to more than 630,000 in the past three years, he said.
The inventory of appeals has grown over the past year from 252,000 to more than 268,000.
He also said the VA, in order to move disability claims faster, has lifted restrictions on what it considers valid evidence. But while the loosened restrictions result in faster decision times for claims, the decisions often go against the veteran, according to Manar.
Manar and other veterans' advocates hit the department on a plan that will give better processing time, and an earlier effective date on any claim, to veterans who file electronically. The same policy is intended to move veterans away from filing informal claims. These can be as simple as a letter to the VA saying a claim is planned.
Historically, the date the letter is received will be the effective date from which to start paying any compensation that is granted.
That earlier date now will be reserved for electronic filers or those who file using standardized forms.
Jeffrey Hall, assistant national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans, said the DAV is not opposed to electric filing or standardized forms.
"We do, however, take exception to eliminating the informal claims process … thereby causing veterans to lose their rightful entitlements such as retroactive monetary benefits just so that [the Veterans Benefits Administration] can speed the process."
Zachary Hearn, deputy director for claims and veterans affairs for The American Legion, said "we can see lot flags that come up when we think about how some of these things will affect veterans’ claims."
"The most important factor is will it make the system better for veterans -- not easier for the VA -- easier for veterans," he said. Hearn questioned the VA's bias toward electronic filing when the U.S. census has shown that more than half of elderly people -- among these many veterans -- do not have regular access to the Internet.
"So does electronic filing make things better for the veteran or for VA?" he asked. "The choice has to stay with the veterans -- first and foremost have to make sure any changes implemented are there to serve the veteran."