Just over two years ago the Veterans Affairs Department released a strategy for ending the disability claims backlog.
Today, the VA is little more than two months away from the deadline it set -- the end of Fiscal Year 2015 -- but currently has just under 128,000 backlogged claims.
"Maybe they’ll be able to get there by the end of the calendar year. I seriously doubt they'll get there by end of September," said Gerald Manar, Veterans of Foreign Wars deputy director of national services.
That's also the view of The American Legion, where Deputy Director of Claims Zach Hearn notes VA officials have tried to squeeze in additional time by changing the target date.
"They’ve flip-flopped with the dates ... by saying the end of 2015, the end of the calendar year," Hearn told Military.com. During hearings, officials would begin talking calendar year as the goal, he said, "and soon everybody was shifting to calendar year."
According to the VA's own strategy paper, published in January 2013, Sept. 30 is when the backlog is supposed to be at zero.
In a statement released to Military.com on Friday, the VA offered its explanation for the different end-dates. It said then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki established the calendar year end of 2015 as the goal.
“Because the federal government’s planning cycles are generally based on fiscal years, VBA [Veterans Benefits Administrration] developed its strategic transformation plan on the basis of fiscal years. However, VA’s goal for elimination of the backlog, as set by Secretary Shinseki, remains a calendar year goal. “
According to the plan as currently detailed by VBA Deputy Under Secretary Beth McCoy on Performance.gov -- an Obama administration website detailing government actions -- the deadline remains Sept. 30.
According to the VA’s latest numbers, 127,916 veterans have been awaiting a decision on their claim longer than 125 days – the VA-stipulated point at which a claim enters the backlog. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki established the 125-day mark in 2010, effectively creating an "official" backlog even as he promised to eliminate it.
The VA had always had had an inventory of pending claims, though until Shinseki the VA never defined it. Instead, officials said in a January 2013 strategy for tackling the problem, "a backlog ... was ambiguously defined and sometimes confused with inventory."
In that same strategy document the department said there would be no claims pending longer than 125 days by Sept. 30, 2015.
The VA said it "continues working toward eliminating the backlog in 2015" and provided a lengthy list of accomplishments demonstrating progress against the backlog, as well as improved efficiencies within VA in how it processes claims.
The current backlog of slightly fewer than 128,000 is in contrast to its high point of 611,000 in March 2013, it said.
"In 2015 veterans wait, on average, 163 fewer days for a claim decision than veterans in 2013. In addition to increased production, claims processing accuracy improved from 83 percent in June 2011 to 91 percent today," according to the statement.
The VFW’s Manar concedes that the VA has made the effort and done a great deal of work. It just won’t be enough to meet its Sept. 30 deadline, he believes.
Additionally, the resources it put to tackling the backlog caused a spike in other kinds of claims that it also has to get under control.
"They have let appeals [claims] go up by 100,000 or more cases in the last three years. They let the number of dependency adjustments skyrocket ... from about 40,000 to over 140,000," he said. "So they’ve made some advancements, certainly, through a lot of hard work, but at a cost of a lot of other work."
Neither Manar nor Hearn believes the VA will get its claims processing accuracy rate up to 98 percent by Sept. 30. It's now at 91 percent.
Hearn said the department would have to triple the number of people it has handling them to bring it up that high.
Says Manar: "Privately, [VA officials] will tell you that won’t be achieved this year."
When Shinseki set his goals he was "being aspirational," Manar said.
"He set a high bar for the department. And somewhere over the years, as he continued to beat that drum and the people under him beat it, it turned from aspirational to a solid commitment," Manar said.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org