VA Fails to Meet Self-Imposed Deadline For Reducing Claims Backlog

More than 75,000 veterans still awaiting benefits

Phoenix VA Health Care Center / AP
October 1, 2015

The Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to meet its self-imposed deadline for reducing the backlog of disability claims to zero.

In January 2013, when the agency was led by Secretary Eric Shinseki, promised that the count of unresolved claims 125 days old or older would be whittled down to zero by Sept. 30, 2015, the end of the fiscal year.

As of Sept. 28, over 75,000 disability claims were still backlogged.

When the count of backlogged claims stood at about 125,000 in July of this year, the agency walked back that initial promise, suggesting that Shinseki had meant to fix the deadline at the end of the calendar year, Dec. 31. Officials also say that the date was never intended as a firm deadline.

Allison Hickey, a VA official, has suggested that the agency will never eliminate the backlog of its oldest claims.

"Zero for us is not an absolute zero," Hickey said in August when the backlog was reduced to just under 100,000 unresolved claims from a peak of well over 600,000 in March 2013.

While the VA has touted its claims reduction, reports have surfaced of regional VA offices across the country manipulating and shredding records. For instance, employees at a Philadelphia VA center in 2014 were found to have manipulated claims data. More recently, an employee at a Houston VA center was discovered to have altered nearly 100 claims to meet management goals.

The VA inspector general in August discovered staffers at a Los Angeles center shredding mail from veterans regarding disability claims. As a result, the VA has launched at least 10 investigations into benefit data manipulation at facilities nationwide.

Dan Caldwell, a former Marine and the legislative and political director at Concerned Veterans for America, told reporters Thursday to take the VA’s alleged claims reduction "with a grain of salt."

"You really have to call into question their real success," Caldwell said.

A VA inspector general report released this week indicated that executives exploited a relocation program in order to obtain salary hikes and other monetary perks.

The inspector general has also recently revealed that the VA spent $1.3 billion to make its electronic claims system "partially effective" and that over 300,000 individuals listed as pending in the VA health care enrollment system have already died.

Darin Selnick, who spent eight years at the VA and now serves as a senior veteran affairs adviser at Concerned Veterans for America, said the VA is plagued by a "culture of corruption" that exists in both its Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and Veterans Health Administration (VHA) branches.

A newly released independent assessment of the VHA found that the culture of the agency’s network of health systems is "characterized by risk aversion and lack of trust."

Selnick, who also serves on the Congressional Commission on Care, called for similar independent reviews to be conducted of the VBA in order to further expose the agency’s "longtime problems."

Selnick also demanded the passage of the VA Accountability Act of 2015, a bill that passed the House in July that would grant VA Secretary Robert McDonald the power to remove or demote a VA employee because of performance or misconduct. McDonald has refused to support the legislation and President Obama has vowed to veto it.

Obama labeled the bill "counterproductive" in July, arguing it would "have a significant impact on VA’s ability to retain and recruit qualified professionals and may result in a loss of qualified and capable staff to other government agencies or the private sector."

"It shows that he is not serious about fixing problems at the VA," Caldwell replied Thursday when the Washington Free Beacon inquired about the president’s promise to veto the bill. "President Obama and his administration have sought to contain this as a political scandal."

Caldwell also said that Obama administration officials have "flat out lied" by implying that the bill would hurt whistleblowers.

According to Selnik, Obama’s refusal to support the legislation is disappointing to the nation’s veterans and soldiers on the front lines.

"It’s very demoralizing to see the president do this sort of thing," Selnik said.