Despite claims by the Department of Veterans Affairs the past two years that they were gradually reducing the backlog of veterans’ disability claims, the arrival of 2016 has seen around 70,000 cases remaining stagnant – a far cry from the agency’s previous claim to dramatically reduce the backlog by the end of 2015. While eliminating all of the backlog is impossible due to the constant nature of veterans’ care, many rightfully find the 70,000 number concerning, clouding doubt on the effectiveness and sincerity of the department.
There are several aspects regarding the backlog and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ general conduct that will raise eyebrows, including:
Redefining the Backlog
To truly discover whether the VA made strides in reducing the backlog, it’s essential to clarify the department’s definition of backlog, according to Gerald Manar, deputy director of National Veterans Service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “They’ve made substantial progress in this one area — you can’t say that there’s anything wrong with that,” he says, “but what’s been wrong for the past two or three years is their definition of the workload and the backlog.”
The VA took several routes to ensure that the initial number constituting the backlog was lowered, largely via semantical re-classification that includes:
- Decided administrative claims, such as adding a spouse onto a claim, would not be a part of the backlog.
- Raised the 125-day goal for completing claims to about 180 days.
- Implemented an automated online system for claims, though it’s unclear how these are factored into the backlog, if at all.
- Claims of “false records” and “long wait times” by veterans are reportedly denied or unanswered.
Other Numbers Tell a Bleaker Story
What’s most alarming is that the number of cases on the backlog may far exceed 70,000. Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, asserted that “433,000 appeals of claims decisions were pending Jan. 1, up from 250,000 pending appeals in April 2013.” Many of these cases were not included in the backlog, according to Miller; he views the behavior by the VA as “misleading.” “The inference to the American public is the veterans are receiving the benefits, and the veterans are not receiving the benefits yet if they are in an appeals position,” he says.
In the VA’s Defense
Although reclassification of certain criteria – like administrative claims and raising the goal for claim completion – show a form of insincerity when regarding the VA’s approval assertions, some criticism appears overly idealized, as if ever reaching the 0 number is possible. “Zero for us is not an absolute zero,” VA secretary Allison Hickey said in August. “I don’t want us to say, ‘Too bad, we want to hit our 125 days! The heck with you! We’re going!’ That’s not right and that’s not the kind of culture and core values that we hold.”
Additionally, it’s nonsensical to expect every veterans’ request to be granted. Many are unnecessary and rejected for being so, yet re-submitted and put back into the backlog. Certainly there is a number of cases that have been rejected and are re-submitted either with adjustments or none at all. A full 45% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are seeking service-related disability claims, which shows that there will continue to be many veterans in need of the VA.
Although the backlog will never reach a literal 0 for aforementioned reasons, many are hopeful that future VA proclamations aren’t indebted to tinkerings like removing administrative claims from the backlog. A more transparent and effective approach is certainly advised for the VA, even in the face of some genuine strides for improvement.