The Rise (and Fall) of the VA Backlog

  • Share
  • Read Later
Chris Maddaloni / CQ Roll Call / Getty Images

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki

Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs likely won’t acknowledge it publicly until later this year, but those responsible for processing disability claims believe the infamous “backlog” peaked more than two months ago.

Last week, the total number of claims in the inventory fell to slightly more than 830,000—the lowest number since October 2011. Since late March, the backlog of claims has been on an eight-week slide as well. Last week, it too reached its lowest point since January 2012—nearly 17 months ago. The downward slope is now steeper than at any time during the Obama administration.

To be sure, no one is yet measuring the drapes in a backlog-free department—as it still stands at more than 500,000 claims. Nevertheless, the trend line is striking—and it mirrors what many VA employees are saying behind closed doors. Barring any surprises, the decline in backlogged claims will only accelerate as an automated system finally replaces paper processing over the next two years.

Therefore, it’s important to understand where the backlog actually stands in relation to where it was—and to fully recognize its context.

By using a simple chart to show the backlog since the beginning of the Obama Administration, we can get past the agenda-specific rhetoric and the media misconceptions to see how—and why—the backlog grew and how it began to shrink.

backlog_time

Friedman

This chart illustrates the inventory of pending VA disability claims since January 2009. The blue line is all claims in the inventory—which peaked at 883,000 in July 2012. The moment a claim is received by the Department, it is included here.

The red line represents the portion of those claims that is backlogged—meaning (since October 2009) that they’ve been in the system for more than 125 days. The high-water mark for the backlog was in March 2013 at 608,000 claims.

Let’s take a look at what the chart shows.

1. The backlog initially expanded as a result of VA raising its own standards.

On the January afternoon Eric Shinseki took over as the nation’s seventh VA secretary, he inherited a mess.

To his immediate front, the former Army chief of staff faced a paper mountain of 391,127 separate disability claims—filed by veterans from every conflict since World War II. Nearly a quarter of the claims (more than 85,000) had been languishing in the system for more than six months.

The gravity of this situation in early 2009—with one war ending and another still raging—was not lost on the new boss. Compounding his problem, however, was the fact that he had little to work with in terms of a technological solution. VA was paper-bound, its IT system antiquated—and it had been this way for years.

Everyone knew this.

Unfortunately, the only way to fix the system was to allow it to get worse—for very specific reasons—before it would get better.

Therefore, the first sharp upward turn for the backlog during this period took place on October 1, 2009 when VA officially defined what “backlog” meant. Prior to that date, VA had categorized disability claims as being in the system for more or less than 180 days.

One of Shinseki’s first acts in addressing the backlog, then, was to recognize that 180 days was neither useful as a measurement, nor fair to veterans: VA had to turn around claims faster—and the department had to hold itself to a higher standard.

Therefore, the new standard for deciding a disability claim became 125 days. This administrative redefinition was good news for veterans. Essentially it was an acknowledgement by Shinseki that VA’s past performance wasn’t good enough—and it was a commitment to cut processing time, eventually, by nearly a third.

The bad news for VA—at least from a PR standpoint—was that it immediately added 62,000 claims to what then became known as the “backlog.” The 85,000 or so claims in the backlog pile nearby doubled to 150,000 overnight, putting it well into six figures for the first time.

Shinseki’s next two backlog-related decisions were just as necessary—but also were double-edged swords.

screen-shot-2012-08-09-at-5-31-52-pm

VAOIG

Disability claims stacked high at a VA office in North Carolina in 2012.

2. Expanding eligibility for veterans affected by PTSD and Agent Orange more than doubled the claims backlog.

As if the paper weren’t problem enough, Shinseki and his staff soon learned that thousands of Vietnam War veterans—many with whom he likely served—had been barred from claiming disability benefits for conditions related to their exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.

He also learned that when a veteran claimed post-traumatic stress related to time in combat, the veteran was obligated to prove that a specific stressor—an event at a certain time and place—had caused the condition. But because many returning veterans weren’t able to prove a specific instance had caused their sleepless nights, irritability, and hyper-vigilance, they were being denied disability benefits.

Shinseki was troubled by both of these. He viewed them as unfair and unjust. So he took action in late 2009, announcing expanded eligibility for those affected by both combat PTSD and Agent Orange.

For veteran groups and, more importantly, the veterans in those categories, it was a long-awaited victory. For the backlog, however, the impact was severe once VA began adjudicating these “presumptive” claims.

As evident in the chart above, the backlog more than doubled in size in less than four months following these changes—between November 2010 and March 2011. A backlog that had hovered around 200,000 claims in summer 2010 was suddenly brimming with more than 450,000 claims by spring 2011.

3. Improved VA outreach amid a difficult economy caused a steady, overall rise in disability claims—especially among aging Vietnam veterans.

It wasn’t just a simple redefinition and expanded eligibility, however, that swelled the claims backlog. In reality, beginning in late 2008, the weak economy hit older veterans hard. A year later, VA began a new era of outreach aimed at raising awareness of VA benefits in ways never before done.

That outreach—especially around Agent Orange—began bringing Vietnam veterans, many of whom had long ago given up on VA, back into the fold. And they were filing claims and enrolling in droves.

According to The Los Angeles Times:

Basic demographics explain some of the filing frenzy. Vietnam veterans are becoming senior citizens and more prone to health problems. Any condition they can link to their military service could qualify for monthly payments — and for many illnesses, it is easier for Vietnam veterans than other former troops to establish those links.

Heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and several other illnesses common in older Americans are presumed to be service-related for Vietnam veterans because the government determined that anyone who served on the ground was likely to have been exposed to Agent Orange. The herbicide is known to increase the risk of those conditions.
At the same time, changing attitudes toward mental health care mean that veterans suffering from PTSD and other psychiatric conditions now are more willing to come forward. The uncertainties of older age — and possibly the decade-long spectacle of the current wars — may be triggering relapses of PTSD among some veterans.

And herein lies perhaps the biggest fallacy of the VA claims backlog as portrayed in the media. The myth is that the VA claims backlog has much to do with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan—that it is, for the most part, related to a crush of returning war veterans.

This myth is perpetuated by interest groups like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and echoed by many in the media. For example a pre-Memorial Day Miami Herald editorial is representative of the pervasive misinformation floating in the media. It discusses the VA backlog almost solely in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans—even though 80% of backlogged claims belong to veterans of other eras.

Understandably, the VA has been overwhelmed. The global war on terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have required the services of millions of Americans, many of whom have been obliged to make repeated tours of duty in combat zones.
Over the past 12 years, about 2.5 million members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and related Reserve and National Guard units have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Department of Defense data. Of those, more than a third were deployed more than once. Nearly 37,000 have been deployed more than five times, and 400,000 service members have reportedly done three or more deployments. 

The editorial continues with more of the same.

eras3

Friedman

In fact, claims filed by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are only a small portion of VA’s inventory and backlog. Currently, they make up 20% of VA’s pending inventory. They represent 21% of the backlog. Only 10% of first-time claims in the backlog belong to Iraq or Afghanistan veterans.

This is crucial to understand because it demonstrates that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are not central to this problem.

VA’s actions since 2009—not coincidentally under the leadership of a Vietnam veteran—have, in fact, revealed the extent of the longstanding estrangement between Vietnam veterans and the government which sent them to war nearly 50 years ago.

And after four years of concerted outreach, along with special care taken to bring Vietnam veterans back into the fold, the awareness campaign has paid off.

Former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell—himself a Vietnam veteran—even noted recently that “the rate of claims being submitted” is “rather extraordinary and unexpected.” Thirty-eight years after the end of the Vietnam War, it seems, its veterans are coming home to the care they have always deserved.

Unfortunately, the system wasn’t designed to handle such an influx. And that leads us to the fix for the backlog of VA claims.

4. The backlog is shrinking, not growing.

As Bob Wallace, the executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Washington office, recently told The New York Times: “The backlog has been a problem for years. . .but fixing it is not going to happen overnight.”

Shinseki and his staff at VA knew this. That’s why, in January 2010, VA began to conceive of plans to automate the claims process. Planning for a fully electronic system was complete by June 2010 and the Veterans Benefits Management System, or VBMS, was well on its way to becoming a reality.

The process of planning, procuring, pilot testing, and deploying in limited areas took nearly three years. But by December 2012, VA was fielding VBMS department-wide.

By May 2013, the system was in more than 90% of VA regional offices.

At this point, VBMS is still a work in progress, and the IT infrastructure on which it is built is still not completely renovated. But there is no doubt it is coming online.

When we look at the sharp decline in the backlog over the past two months, however, what we’re seeing, primarily, is the effect of VA’s decision in April to “make provisional decisions on the oldest claims in inventory”—a wise decision, but one that removes those claims from the backlog before every one is resolved completely. While this speeds the process considerably, it’s assumed that some of those claims will ultimately end up back in the backlog—though many, if not most, will not.

This decision, along with mandatory overtime this summer, will hold the backlog in check until VBMS is fully functional in 2014.

And that brings us to where we are now.

The VA backlog is a complicated topic. As a political football, it has divided veterans groups, pitting veteran advocates unnecessarily against each other. It has caused many well-meaning—but uninformed—journalists to muddy the waters even further. Politicians and pundits have criticized VA ceaselessly on the issue.

Therefore, as VA’s long-standing plan takes effect this year, and the backlog recedes, it’s more important than ever to remember that misleading or inaccurate information helps no one.

Brandon Friedman is a vice president at FleishmanHillard in Washington, D.C. and the author of The War I Always Wanted. From 2009 to 2012, he worked at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Follow him on Twitter at @BFriedmanDC.

19 comments
ktennantdc
ktennantdc

Google: Kenneth Tennant ( Domestic Terrorism: USA vs Veterans and the First Amendment )

ktennantdc
ktennantdc

DHS agents were dispatched to intimidate me into silence by "arresting" me at gun point in front of my children and wife who was throwing up in distress. All because I asked this gov't to honor its promise to US disabled American veterans.  This was a Gov't Sponsored Criminal Activity that has since targeted my wife, who in 2008, same year as the Raid on Postville (You Tube: Raid on Postville) was Constructively Discharged afte nearly 8 years of dedicated service to a Bank that was subsequently investigated by both the Iowa Civil Rights Commission & EEOC who determined that the Bank violated a number of Employment Discrimination laws. But, because they have money and hired lawyers (Bradley & Riley, PC of Cedar Rapids, who lied on record) they have yet to be held accountable. Federal "Judges" in Iowa put their special corporate interests ahead of their office and ahead of justice. They are clients/customers of the Bank (QUAD CITY BANK & TRUST CO., Bettendorf, IA) and refused to recuse due to their Conflict of Interest. These "Judges" violated their oaths of office, violated the Constitution, violated their own FRCP & Code of Conduct, deprived us of Equal Access to Justice and Defrauded US of Honest Services. Our appeal was filed July 2, 2013 with the US Dist Ct-Southern Iowa, case 3:12-cv-00083) going to the 8th Cir Ct of Appls where it will be rubber stamped by more of the same good ol boy creatures from the culture of corruption ? Where is the Iowa delegation ? Chuck E. "Cheese" Grassley acts with deliberate indifference. You Tube: Lawless America. My Appeal for an Earlier Effective date, consistent with the US Dept of VA 100% "Service-Connected" rating and onset of disabilities (1987) languishes in a never ending "back log."  I appealed in 2006, got a BVA hearing last year, June 20, 2012 where the judge said I made my case after producing service records that demonstrated the nexus. Why am I still waiting and where are my ssdi benefits ? The SSA determined disability in 1991. Again, where is the Iowa delegation ? Again, Chuck E. Cheese Grassley's nomination, Ron Longstaff, Judge, US Dist Ct., S-IA is the "Judge" who kept my ssdi benefits and NOTHING has been done to correct this. Please share this with whom it should concern. Dr. Kenneth Tennant, 3935 Rolling Hills Dr., Bettendorf, Iowa (563) 355-7073 or KTennantDC at Gmail dot com

ApostleCharlesW.MeltonJr.
ApostleCharlesW.MeltonJr.

veterans need something done about back log we served with pride now we need to be served with the same pride that we gave to our country it is taking too long for the VA to respond two claims veterans on the street no place to live and no one wants to help we need for someone to get busy and finalize some ok these claims that are lying on peoples desk the NEEDED TO GET TO WORK ON these claims

alphaz_1
alphaz_1

I filed my claim electronically with the Cleveland regional office on May 5, 2012. I had a C+P exam in September 2012. I have heard nothing since then. My claim has been in the "UNDER REVIEW" phase since that date. Service connection for my contentions have already been established, but nothing has been done on my claim. The 125 days is just a number they've pulled from their Asses.

BarryPAllen
BarryPAllen

I am a retired Air Force military lawyer.  My civilian legal practice primarily deals with representing Veterans and their families in the Disability claims process at Regional Offices, and on appeal. 

Though the author provides valuable insight into why the number of claims that make up the "backlog" have increased since 2008, he and journalists who cover this issue never address the real reasons why there are so many claims, or why the Board of Veterans Appeals and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims have such heavy dockets.  The VA disability claims process is unbelievably complex and Byzantine, much more so than anyone can imagine.  Well intentioned rating officials - i.e., those who decide whether to approve a claim, or what percentage of disability should be assigned - are neither doctors nor lawyers, yet they are tasked with making medical and legal judgments.  Since they are not equipped to do so, they rely on cut and paste analyses that often don't apply to the facts of the case before them, or they use templates that require no reasoning and exist only to give the appearance of speeding up decision making.  They are buried by such big files that they miss, ignore, or do not understand evidence that has been presented, and they often ask for the same thing multiple times, much to the frustration of the Veteran. 

In addition, the ratings personnel typically divide claims into multiple little pieces, each of which tends to move through  the system at different stages than other claims for the same person.  Moreover, no one person is responsible for deciding every aspect of a Veteran's total claims package.  

Congress has responsibility here, too.  VA whispers in Congress' ear that the law should be changed in a certain way, and Congress may well agree.  VA says the changes are necessary, because VA knows best - after all, it is "paternalistic" to Veterans - and Congress goes along.  Even the Courts are not free of blame; they believe VA's claims that it is a paternalistic organization and then give undue deference to VA's one-sided and stilted interpretations of its regulations or the statutes.  To top off everything, Congress has accepted VA's arguments that it knows best, and locked Veterans into an administrative and judicial stovepipe.  Even in the most egregious cases, where VA's errors are obvious and have continued for decades, it is virtually impossible to get a case out of the VA framework into regular United States District Courts, where there might be a chance for a fresh look at the evidence and the applicable law.

The solution is NOT more computers, more software, or more claims processors.  The entire statutory and regulatory framework which governs the disability claims process has to be totally revamped and simplified.  Until that occurs, all the tinkering around the edges by changing definitions of what constitutes a backlog, or whether certain illnesses are presumptively associated with service in a particular location, or by automating the process even further, will not truly diminish the backlog.  Such steps are simply going to result in cosmetic changes to the numbers, but Veterans won't be getting disability awards that reflect their true medical and psychological problems.  Wholesale reform of the system itself is required.  Anything less is a recipe for continued disappointment for everyone, most of all the Veterans who served in peacetime and war, and who deserve so much more.

airforcecaptain2011
airforcecaptain2011

There is, in Mr. Friedman's piece, a soft bigotry, which I suspect was unintended, against veterans from earlier conflicts (ie Vietnam.)  The article suggests the current backlog is the fault of, and due to, not the VA's current leadership mind you, (nor the author who worked for the VA between 2009-2012) but of veterans themselves for apparently having the audacity to file benefits claims.  It has been the Obama administration and the VA leadership's position, repeatedly, for the past five years that this top priority, the backlog, was unacceptable and had to be eliminated.  While much of Washington saw its budgets shrink, the same couldn't be said for the VA which was given unprecedented resources.  Assuming the facts of Mr. Friedman's piece are accurate, which seems to be the case, there are then two possible conclusions which can be drawn, both of which are pretty negative 1) the VA truly didn't know that its actions would make eliminating the backlog more difficult, which calls the VA's competency into question or 2) the VA did know that its actions would make eliminating the backlog more difficult, but never said that to the American people, which calls the VA's integrity into question.

I truly hope that Mr. Friedman is correct and that the backlog will soon belong to the dustbin of history.  However, anyone who has followed this issue for any period of time might be skeptical of such claims, and, if they were skeptical, they would have good reason.

chief7158
chief7158

Have accessed the VA Benefits website to submit additional information for my claim but you can only upload 5 mb of files. A single scanned paged is larger then that. Tried calling the number on the letter but can never get thru. You cannot even leave a voicemail so someone can call you back. With us older soldiers whose files were never digitized we are definitely at a loss with supporting documents.

chief7158
chief7158

Unlike active duty personnel or USAR and NG soldiers getting off mobilization, USAR and NG soldiers who retire and then submit claims are facing longer wait times. I have passed the 400 day mark and have been asked three times to submit additional documentation.

gag
gag

The author at least admits he's a former shill for the VA. This is the standard dog and pony show they put on for Congress. Strategic plans are reactionary and simply are a response to pressure from above. They aren't a panacea if all they do is fashion a rubber denial stamp and pass the buck. Since over 60% of what arrives at the CAVC is remanded, vacated or reversed, it's fairly obvious what is afoot.  The ROs are simply moving the backlog to BVA. After two years with no investigation, BVA denies summarily in 75-80% of  cases. Since Vets tend to give up with this kind of deaf bureaucracy, only 5K appeal to the Court. That's where they separate the ribbon clerks from the poker players and the Vet is more prone to be heard. If every entitled Vet appealed his denial tomorrow, the backlog would continue until 2023 based on a decade average to wend your way through the VA House of Mirrors.

SueFrasier
SueFrasier

The news media is spinning its own wheels on this issue. There was a headline out the other day that the Appeals Board is drowning in Appeals. This mean the VA agency was just merely wholesale denying cases to "clear the backlog" so the same cases would then move up on appeal into the courts system and not show up on the agency records. Please get your story straight on this and research the ongoing headlines before writing a new story like we do. ----- Sue Frasier, Army 1970, national veterans activist.

JimStarowicz
JimStarowicz

How does a Country HONOR It's Fallen, by Their Own 'Sacrifice' in Taking Care of the Brothers and Sisters They Served With!!
The Whole Country Served, Not Just The Many Caring Groups, with handfuls of members and volunteers, who have to fight for funding when successful and not getting grants, Within!!

"If military action is worth our troops’ blood, it should be worth our treasure, too — not just in the abstract, but in the form of a specific ante by every American." -Andrew Rosenthal 10 Feb. 2013

Rachel Maddow: 'Obama indicates beginning of end of war on terror',  "We got a huge round of tax cuts in this country a few weeks before9/11. Once 9/11 happened and we invaded Afghanistan, we kept the tax cuts anyway.
How did we think we were going to pay for that war? Did we think it was free?
Then, when we started a second simultaneous war in another country, we gave ourselves a second huge round of tax cuts. After that second war started. The wars, I guess, we thought would be free, don`t worry about it, civilians. Go about your business." 23 May 2013

“Why in 2009 were we still using paper?” VA Assistant Secretary Tommy Sowers “When we came in, there was no plan to change that; we’ve been operating on a six month wait for over a decade.” 27 March 2013

WHY? GOOD QUESTION THOSE SERVED SHOULD ANSWER!

Prior too this present Executive and Veterans Administrations and just touching on the problems:

Army Times Oct. 16, 2008 - VA claims found in piles to be shredded

CNN iReport October 25, 2008 - House Vets' Committee To Probe VA Shredder Scandal

Tampa Bay Times Oct 27, 2008 - Hundreds of VA documents improperly shredded, review finds {Tampa Bay Times search page and series of articles}

CBS News February 11, 2009 - Veterans' Claims Found in Shredder Bins

And more disturbing in relation to even before and through the early years of the Afghanistan, quickly abandoned missions of, and Iraq occupations, this:

ProPublica and The Seattle Times Nov. 9, 2012 - Lost to History: Missing War Records Complicate Benefit Claims by Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans
"DeLara's case is part of a much larger problem that has plagued the U.S. military since the 1990 Gulf War: a failure to create and maintain the types of field records that have documented American conflicts since the Revolutionary War."

Add in the issues of finally recognizing in War Theater and more Veterans, by this Veterans Administration and the Executive Administrations Cabinet, what the Country choose to ignore from our previous decades and wars of: The devastating effects on Test Vets and from PTS, Agent Orange, Homelessness, more recent the Desert Storm troops Gulf War Illnesses, Gulf War Exposures with the very recent affects from In-Theater Burn Pits and oh so so much more! Tens of Thousands of Veterans' that have been long ignored and maligned by previous VA's and the whole Country and through their representatives!

These present wars have yet to be paid for! Rubber stamping and rapid deficits rising started before 9/11 and continued with same for the wars. But especially in the early some six years of extremely little being added to the Veterans Administration budgets by those Congresses, and since obstructed by same war rubber stampers, as to the long term results of War, DeJa-Vu all over again.

"You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today." - Abraham Lincoln

USN All Shore '67-'71 GMG3 Vietnam In Country '70-'71

haldonahue
haldonahue

As always from the author, a well documented piece. Here is the rub: "... As Bob Wallace, the executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Washington office, recently toldThe New York Times: “The backlog has been a problem for years. . .but fixing it is not going to happen overnight.”..." The question must be asked and answered - why not? The cost to veterans has been and continues to be tremendous. 

One wonders how different the result would have been if the head of the VA aggressively reorganized the VA rather than bureaucratically managing the change. 


Read more: http://nation.time.com/2013/06/03/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-va-backlog/#ixzz2VAF3fvOU

Dknapp
Dknapp

The real question is: How many claims examiners were or are pulled from cases already in appeal status, to help reduce the load of initial claims?

Cases in appeal take over 2 years to complete, on average. This timeline is stretched out even further when examiners are pulled from their work to hastily mow through stacks of new, initial claims.

Hire more examiners, preferably veterans (only 30% of the VA's staff has served). Convert to a digital record system. Force interoperability with the DoD. Fire old, entrenched, low-performing bureaucrats.

STILLLIVING
STILLLIVING

Twenty-five years of military service, and a few herniated diskin my back, knee pain (both), PTSD, hip pain, and GYN problems, asthma, allergies, shoulder pain, and depression, but I have still have hope.  I am determined to dig myself out of the slumbs and into the middle-class.

DHMazur
DHMazur

Thank you for this wonderfully informative piece.  Journalism at its best.

There are far too many people invested in stoking military resentment against civilian society.  The military uses it as a recruiting and retention tool.  We bully people into silence on military issues by suggesting they do not support or respect the military enough.  We undermine public servants who are making a good-faith effort, like Secretary Shinseki, for political advantage.  Perhaps worst of all, we destroy the confidence that veterans have in the system.

A law professor, former Air Force officer, and author of "A More Perfect Military: How the Constitution Can Make Our Military Stronger"


THX2DAV
THX2DAV

@STILLLIVINGI know how you feel - got injured in 2000 and dumped via med - sc but rated 20% for neck & back injury with aviation career up in smoke.  Gave up on va like everyone else running the paperwork circles but in 2009 the DAV got ahold of me and I gave them POA and let them take it on... they dug up my original 2001 appeal that had been "buried" and never even looked at.  after 13 years of living in hell and making due i'm still waiting.  last month the DAV finally got my sc claim adjusted to 90% and va has agreed to go retroactive to date of discharge then 100% continuing... not going to make the last 13 years of hell right, but if it weren't for the DAV i would still be where i was in 2001 - tossed out with the trash in hopes that you go away for good.

STILLLIVING
STILLLIVING

I don't know where you have been, but the system has been broke forever-for some of us.  It is obvious the system works very well for select folks.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,105 other followers