The long-standing slog within the Veterans Affairs Department to cut down its mountain of disability claims has been well documented. Or has it?
The VA loves to talk about how it’s on track to reach its goal next year of completing all disability compensation and pension claims within 125 days — keeping them off the dreaded “backlogged” list. Frequently overlooked? The other two-thirds of VA claims — or more than 1 million requests — aren’t subject to the department’s 125-days, 98-percent accuracy goal.
“The VA does a good job in convincing lawmakers and the public and the media that the only claims that everybody should be focused on should be disability claims,” said Gerald Manar, national veterans service deputy director at the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a former 30-year VA employee. “… It’s disingenuous of VA leaders to claim that they’ve made progress, but there’s still all this other work out there.”
Total claims as of June: 1,641,043 (of this figure only 562,968 (34 percent) are subject to backlog and accuracy goals) What are these other claims clogging up the VA’s system? They run the gamut from aiming to change the amount of disability pay a veteran receives to appealing previous decisions by the department.
They also include responses to congressional inquiries. So while the number of pending VA disability claims has shrunk in recent years, the number of overall claims has mushroomed to roughly 1.64 million. That’s compared with 941,666 in late 2009.
Here is a breakdown of the main claims the VA is wrestling with under the radar.
• Award Adjustments (29 percent): For those of you who don’t spend your free time digging around the VA’s website or aren’t fluent in VA-speak, an award adjustment is, well, exactly what it sounds like. Veterans or their family members can try to change the amount awarded to them or their family members for a variety of reasons.
The VA can also request a change. For example, a veteran could want to reinstate a child’s dependent status, so the child can receive payments from the VA. Or the department could try to decrease pension pay for veterans whose income exceeds a certain threshold.
The VA needs to tackle 471,418 of these award adjustments, which are divided between compensation and pension payments. And although these outstanding claims aren’t included in the VA’s drive to cut the backlog, nearly 70 percent of them have been pending for 125 days or more.
• Appeals (17 percent): These make up the second largest group of the VA’s other claims. There are 279,055 pending appeals, which is more than the VA’s infamous number of backlogged disability claims. Veterans’ advocates are split on what is behind a recent increase in appeals.
Some believe that in the race to clear the claims that are officially “backlogged,” more veterans are forced to appeal VA decisions that were rushed or inaccurate. Others say that as the number of claims that are processed increases, it makes sense to see a correlating increase in appeals. Either way, the appeals process can leave a veteran in claims limbo for an additional two and a half years.
• The Others (20 percent): Think of it as the kitchen drawer where you stick the odds and ends; the VA has a lot of them—327,602 to be exact, a majority of which are tied to compensation. These claims can include Freedom of Information Act requests, cost-of-living adjustments, and even correspondence with lawmakers. They also include internal quality reviews — an in-house attempt to catch serious mistakes. A minority of these claims — slightly more than 30,000 — are tied to pensions, which follows a larger trend in which pension claims make up a relatively small amount of the VA’s total claims workload.
And while acknowledging that the VA has made progress on its disability compensation and pension claims, Manar said, “The problem is that they’ve done it to the exclusion of much of the rest of the workload, and, as a consequence, there are even more glaring problems.”