Representatives for two of the largest veterans' service organizations in the country say they're pleased with the reductions the Veterans Affairs Department has made in its claims backlog but say part of the progress was done simply by redefining the backlog.
"They've made substantial progress in this one area -- you can't say that there's anything wrong with that -- but what's been wrong for the past two or three years is their definition of the workload and the backlog," said Gerald Manar, deputy director of National Veterans Service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Manar said that the VA decided that administrative claims -- such as adding a spouse or dependent onto a claim application -- would no longer be part of the backlog, a move that may have reduced what the VA then considered the backlog but immediately blew up the number of such claims taking longer than 125 days to process.
"Today there are [about] 221,000" such claims awaiting action, he said, up from the typical 40,000 several years ago. "Why would they go up five times in the span of three years? Because they changed the process."
Such claims are now handled as a separate application, said Manar, whose view is shared by Louis Celli, director of the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division for The American Legion.
"The Legion is extremely concerned about all claims currently in the backlog that need to be addressed," not only the administrative claims but appeals as well, Celli said.
VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey last week announced that the backlog had finally fallen below 100,000, down from a high of just over 600,000 in 2013.
VA officials deny there was any change in what constituted the backlog from the time former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki created the goal of 125-day adjudication time on claims in 2010. Before then, there had always been claims that extended beyond 125 days, and various VA officials determined that it should take about 180 days to act on a disability claim.
Shinseki determined it should be done within 125 days, effectively drawing a line separating timely claims from those backlogged.
VA officials say Shinseki always intended the backlog to mean only claims for disability compensation, not administrative claims such as dependents and not appeals.
"Never, ever, in anybody's history" did the backlog refer to anything other than ratings claims, Hickey said. "Ratings claims -- that's the backlog. Non-ratings claims -- that's not the backlog. And then there are appeals, and they have never been in the backlog."
"So, no, there has not been any maneuvering of any kind in any way to do that," she said.
The Monday Morning Workload, the VA's online site to publicize its progress, shows every category of claim, including first-time applications for disability compensation, appeals, and administrative actions such as including a spouse or dependent.
It's possible, she agreed, that because all are there and all tracked, it has been assumed all were included in what the VA considers the backlog. But that's never been the case, she said.
"Certainly, as a veteran, I would like to see everything go fast," she said. "[This] is why on the non-ratings side we have built some technology, as well."
This includes an automated system whereby veterans can now file a dependency claim online or a next-of-kin can file for a burial allowance.
In 60 percent of cases, Hickey said, the automated system executes the application immediately, getting a dependent onto a veteran's claim for purposes of additional payment within 24 hours, and a check for the burial allowance sent out within a day or two.
"We're trying to do all those kinds of things that don't take a rating or adjudication process ... and [automate] them," she said.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.