WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs is warning of a rapidly growing backlog for veterans who seek to appeal decisions involving disability benefits, saying it will need much more staff even as money remains in question due to a tightening Trump administration budget.
The red flag is included in a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday. The VA says the wait time of as much as five years for veterans seeking resolution of their claims would continue to grow without a "hiring surge" in the next budget year beginning in October.
Without the staff, the VA said, the backlog could exceed 1 million within a decade, and "veterans may have to wait an average of 8.5 years" to have their appeals resolved.
The department provides $63.7 billion in disability compensation payments each year to about 4.1 million veterans with disabling conditions incurred during their military service.
Setting a goal to decide most appeals within one year by 2021, the VA set aside additional money in 2017 to boost full-time staff by 36 percent, or 242. It also estimated that a hiring surge of up to 1,458 more staff would be necessary in 2018.
But in comments to GAO, the VA acknowledged Thursday that its workforce plan was "highly dependent on VA's annual budget appropriation," and that it could not necessarily commit fully to the hiring.
Trump's budget blueprint calls for a 6 percent increase in VA funding, mostly to pay for rising health costs to treat veterans. The VA is one of three agencies slated for more money amid big-time cuts to other domestic programs.
But the White House plan has yet to spell out specific funding for hiring of more VA staff to handle both disability claims and appeals, only saying it planned to continue "critical investments" to transform VA claims processing. In testimony to Congress this week, VA inspector general Michael Missal said the Trump administration was proposing to carry over 2017 funding levels to 2018 for most VA discretionary programs.
Asked for additional detail, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget said, "stay tuned."
VA Secretary David Shulkin has pointed to reform of the VA's disability appeals process as one of his top 10 priorities, calling the current system "broken." He has backed legislation introduced last year aimed at streamlining the appeals process, but has been less clear about available money for hiring. Last week, after being prodded by members of Congress, Shulkin released a memorandum detailing a few hundred more exemptions to the federal hiring freeze, in part to allow for the hiring of claims processors authorized in 2017.
"These workforce shortages are deeply troubling," said Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "It's time we get these folks hired."
He was among a group of senators, including Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, on Thursday who re-introduced legislation to overhaul the disability appeals system.
In a phone interview, VA officials said they had been devoting additional staff in recent years to address the appeals backlog but that broader reform from Congress, including added staffing, was urgently needed.
"We plan to continue to hire to the extent we can," said Dave McLenachen, director of the Veterans Benefits Administration's appeals management office.
In the GAO report, auditors as a whole found the VA's staffing estimates sound but cautioned the government's second largest agency needed a better plan to make sure additional staff are properly trained and have adequate office space.