Officials from the Veterans Affairs Department were pressed Tuesday to explain how the paperless fix to the disability claims process has initially resulted in growing backlogs.
The claims backlog stood at about 76,000 last May before the VA solution called the National Work Queue was fully implemented, but the backlog last week was at 101,000 cases, said Rep. Mike Bost, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
At a hearing of the panel, Ronald S. Burke Jr., the VA assistant deputy secretary for Field Operations National Work Queue, didn't dispute Bost's numbers but said one of the problems is that "this is a relatively new initiative."
Willie C. Clark Sr., deputy under secretary for Field Operations, said the new system has improved efficiency for veterans and the result is that "they submit more claims."
The queue was described by Thomas J. Murphy, acting under secretary for benefits at the Veterans Benefits Administration, as an electronic records system "to ensure veterans receive a more timely decision on their disability compensation claims."
With the technology, the VA now has the ability to shift overloads in the system from one regional VA office to another. "This new environment allows VA the flexibility to move claims around the country that have the capacity to take the next action on a veteran's claim," Murphy said.
"On its face, this is common sense," Bost said. "NWQ allows VA to distribute its workload evenly across the nation to reduce waiting times for veterans who file claims for benefits. However, there are some concerns about whether NWQ is actually performing as it should."
The claims backlog was at about 99,000 cases as of Tuesday, Murphy said, and he acknowledged that "we're never going to get to zero. That's not going to happen."
Some claims, particularly those involving radiation disability, simply take more time, and it would "not be the right thing to do" for the veteran to speed up the process, he said.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Connecticut Democrat and the acting ranking member on the subcommittee, said she is concerned that the electronic system allows too many VA claims processors to become involved, or have "touches," on a particular case.
Burke said that a claim in the new system normally involves five or six involvements by processors.
"We need to reduce the number," Esty said.
In a separate panel at the subcommittee hearing, several veterans service organizations said they are generally in favor of the paperless claims system that allows VA to shift cases among regional offices.
The implementation of the electronic system "has been credited with assisting in the reduction of the backlog that peaked at 611,073 claims in 2013," said Zachary Hearn, deputy director of claims in the National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division of the American Legion.
However, in his prepared remarks for the subcommittee, Hearn said the Legion is concerned that its accredited representatives assisting veterans with claims at local regional offices are not being kept fully informed when cases are processed at another regional office.
Hearn said there is a need for a notification system to be installed in the queue "for accredited representatives so that they would know when a claim adjudicated in another location requires a review."
A similar complaint came from Ryan Gallucci, deputy director for National Veterans Service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who also said that the VFW's accredited representatives are sometimes out of the loop when ratings decisions are made at another VA regional office.
"At first, it may look good that VA was able to send the rating to the veteran more quickly," Gallucci said, "but this is no good if the decision is inaccurate and if our advocates have no way to explain the rating decisions to our veterans."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.