WASHINGTON – It was one of the simplest, most poignant promises Barack Obama made in 2008 in his first campaign for the White House: he would fulfill “a sacred trust with our veterans” by significantly reducing the government’s lengthy backlog of pending claims for disability coverage. The goal: all veterans could get a decision on disability claims within 125 days.
But on this Veterans Day as Obama prepares for the advent of his second term, the president’s pledge not only remains unfulfilled, it has become a farcical rallying cry for sick veterans, their widows and their advocates who now can wait as long as one to two years for disability decisions from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
And there’s tens of thousands of more cases pending in various forms of appeal, where decisions can take months or years to resolve. For instance, the average time it takes to resolve a case before the Veterans Appeals Board is 883 days.
In short, Obama made it worse, not better. The reason is because the new claims workers his administration hired did not keep pace with the crush of new demand from Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans or the new coverage areas authorized by the VA in 2010 for Vietnam veterans.
“In the last two years it has gotten far worse than it has ever been,” said Walter J. Tafe, the director of the Burlington County Military and Veterans Service in New Jersey who has helped thousands of veterans or their widows navigate the VA bureaucracy to secure benefits they’re owed.
Tafe said he sympathizes with the regional VA workers, who work hard but simply don’t have the resources to keep up with new demand. He added that he seldom if ever sees a case, even a simple one, resolved within the 125-day target the VA set.
“I’m happy if we can get it done in a year. And that’s a simple case. Complicated cases, it can be 18 months or 24 months, easily,” Tafe said in an interview with the Washington Guardian.
And as VA has tried to speed up work to keep the backlog from growing out of hand, its error rate has soared. The VA inspector general told Congress this summer that it found an error rate on high-risk disability claims of 30 percent – more than double the agency’s goals – meaning veterans can be approved or denied benefits incorrectly. An analysis of appeals cases by the Board of Veterans Appeals suggested that error could even be higher, at least in contested cases. It grants appeals or remands cases back to the VA about three-quarters of the time, mostly because of mistakes.
The reasons for delays and errors, the VA admits, are many and complicated. The VA added hundreds of new benefits processors in an effort to meet Obama’s pledge, but it was quickly overrun by the growth of claims from returning Iraq and Afghan war veterans.
And then, the administration made a politically popular decision in 2010 to approve a slew of new illnesses to be covered under VA disability claims for Vietnam War veterans affected by Agent Orange. But planning and resources didn’t keep up, and the system has essentially crumbled under the weight of the new burdens.
“Too many veterans still wait too long. That’s unacceptable,” VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey acknowledged in September.
And so the VA has set a new goal and strategy. It’s redeployed 1,200 employees to work on backlogged claims, increased oversight, significantly increased training of employees and begun a transition from an old paper system to a paperless, digital processing system. The workers who underwent new training have been able to reduce their error rates, the VA said, citing one hopeful sign for the future.
Hickey says the new strategy should be a “lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog.”
“VA’s goal is to process all disability claims within 125 days, at a 98 percent accuracy level, and eliminate the claims backlog in 2015,” the agency said in a statement to the Washington Guardian.
Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., chairman of the House subcommitee that oversees veteran benefits, isn’t convinced the VA is on the right track and recently shephered through the House legislation trying fix the backlog.
“It is unacceptable that our veterans who have sacrificed so much in service to our country come home to a VA benefits system that is severely backlogged and inefficient,” he said. “The size and scope of the VA benefits backlog will continue to increase as our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan attempt to access a system that is broken and ill-equipped to efficiently provide current and future veterans with the benefits they have earned through their service.”
The VA boasted it managed to process more than 1 million benefits claims in 2012, and in the last few months the number of pending claims has dropped a few percentage points in total even as the more complicated cases aging over 125-days has shot up.
If the VA’s new strategy meets the new goal, Obama’s pledge finally could be fulfilled by the final year of his second term. But those on the front lines see many new obstacles, including a bureaucratic mindset that complicates even the simplest cases.
“There’s a bureaucracy that goes on inside the VA that just clogs the system,” said Tafe, who recalls poignantly the case of a widow of a veteran who died of a certified illness related to his service that he tried to help this summer.
The VA, he said, held up the elderly women’s payments for seven months until she could prove she had not remarried in the weeks after her husband of 53 years passed away.
“It’s insulting that that’s the type of bureaucracy we’re dealing in,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking for me to tell widows we can’t give you any money because you’re stuck in a bureaucracy like this.”
Tafe said the VA has added some new processing employees, but not enough to meet the crush of new claims, and the new workers “can’t learn a complicated system in just a year.”
Meanwhile, a recent investigation found veterans at one clinic in Memphis waited an average of nine hours to see a doctor when they sought emergency care.
Even if processing speeds up, the VA has the additional challenge of stopping errors. And veterans going through the process feel stuck in limbo: in some cases already well past the one-year-mark on pending cases.
One veteran, who spoke to the Washington Guardian only on condition of anonymity because he still works for the government, described the 28-month odyssey he has endured.
“I submitted my VA claim July 2010 and it still has not been completed. The VA estimates the claim to complete between January and June 2013,” he said.
The veterans caught in the worst predicament are those whose service falls between the Vietnam veterans – whose new Agent Orange claims are targeted for priority completion within two years – and the very newest veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan whose claims for disability can often exceed a dozen conditions that need to be validated and go to the head of the line because of the pressing needs.
“I can understand the need to complete claims of veterans who served in Vietnam 40+ years ago. I also can understand that troops on active duty in the board process have