The Department of Veterans Affairs is finally starting to show signs of progress in reducing the stubborn backlog of claims pending for 125 days or more. At the beginning of July, the VA was reporting a backlog of 536,400 cases. That is still much higher than it was when Eric Shinseki took the Secretary of Veterans Affairs job in 2009. But at least the number is beginning to decline: The VA reported a backlog of 608,000 claims in March.
The Secretary has established an ambitious goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015. That looks like it’s not going to happen. But the recent progress is encouraging – and is the result of a monumental commitment of both human and technological resources.
What’s helped? First of all, the Department has been increasingly successful in digitizing the claims process. This is a huge issue, as the old paper-based system was slow cumbersome and prone to routine errors such as transcription problems and lost documents. Merely storing the huge number of records in paper files was becoming an increasingly unmanageable problem for the VA.
In June, though, the Veterans Administration completed its roll-out its new electronic platform – the Veterans Benefit Management System (VBMS) – in all 56 of its regional offices. Despite some significant hiccups, the rollout was completed six months ahead of schedule.
“This is a big cross-over year for us,” Shinseki said recently to a gathering of VA claims-processing employees in Manchester, New Hampshire. “We have for decades sat astride rivers of paper. Now we are in the process of turning off paper spigots and turning on electronic ones.”
This is an auspicious event for a couple of reasons:
First, the electronic system makes the claims-tracking process itself more efficient. So even if the original file is still on paper, fewer additional man-hours need be spent on the process of entering data into a system to track progress.
Second, the new electronic system means that fewer paper applications are coming in. The process on new claims becomes much more efficient.
Additionally, veterans in the backlog have benefitted from an end to the war in Iraq, which had tragically been contributing a steady stream of new combat and deployment-related claims. Furthermore, the flood of newly-initiated coming from Agent Orange-related incidents has subsided, reducing the new-claims workload. The VA had experienced a surge in claims from Vietnam War veterans once the Obama Administration indicated that they were looking favorably at Agent Orange-related claims. The VA also expanded benefits eligibility for conditions related to service during the Gulf War.
Technically, a claim is categorized as “backlogged” if it is still pending adjudication after 125 days. Appealed claims that receive an initial adjudication are not considered “backlogged.” In September of 2009, when Shinseki came on the job, the backlog stood at 180,000 claims. Since then, the VA has been processing claims at a higher rate than ever before – but the furious pace was still not enough to keep up with the new claims piling in.
The Veterans Administration also sought to enlist the support of organizations like Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion to help veterans in the process of documenting and preparing their claims. This led to fewer incomplete applications and quicker processing times, because these claims tended to be more complete and more fully-documented prior to even reaching the VA processing center.