According to an Associated Press article published late last month, “the current backlog of 98,535 claims older than 125 days is the lowest since [the Department of Veterans Affairs] started measuring the claims backlog in 2007.” What’s more, VA undersecretary for benefits Alison Hickey states in the report that “accuracy of disability decisions has improved from about 83 percent in 2011 to 91 percent today.”
Due in large part to mandatory overtime for VA Regional Office employees over the last three years, Ms. Hickey says that the improvements in processing time for original claims will not vanish when, this fall, VA puts an end to the mandatory overtime.
While our office applauds the VA’s efforts to process disability claims more efficiently since new VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald was appointed last year in the wake of the VA healthcare scandal, the news (which Hickey calls a “historic milestone”) does not come without an asterisk. Or perhaps numerous asterisks.
In a statement, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said that with “with approximately 100,000 veterans still languishing on the initial claims backlog alone, it is still far too early to pat ourselves on the back,” and “given VA's history of hiding veterans off the books, we cannot forget the ongoing investigations into data manipulation and destruction of claims documents across the country.”
According to a CNN report published last week, “The VA's inspector general found that out of about 800,000 records stalled in the agency's system for managing health care enrollment, there were more than 307,000 records that belonged to veterans who had died months or years in the past.” And recently, VA Regional Offices from California to Pennsylvania have been found guilty of stashing unopened disability claims in stray file drawers and manipulating data in order to make the agency’s notorious backlog numbers shrink.
Also, recent internal inspection of the Wichita VA Regional Office “did not accurately process two of the three types of disability claims reviewed.” When the same type of inspections were done this summer at the St. Petersburg (Florida) and Winston-Salem ( North Carolina) VA Regional Offices the investigators found that, in both cases, nearly 20 percent of the claims reviewed were not accurately processed.
But the larger problem, which is not being included in the VA’s “historic milestone” news about decreasing its disability claims backlog, is that appeals of unfavorable disability decisions are still lingering for totally inexcusable amounts of time.
Attorney Timothy Franklin, who travels to almost every VA Regional Office to attend hearing with veterans our office represents, has learned in private conversations with Decision Review Officers that almost every VA Regional Office reports that the disability appeals backlog is actually increasing. Just this morning, I spoke with a veteran (this one dealing with the Detroit VA Regional Office) who said that his case, which was remanded to Detroit from the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, had not been worked on by VA in nearly five years.
Simply pushing through decisions, many of them inaccurately denying benefits to veterans, on original claims and then praising a decrease in backlog is not nearly enough, with so many veterans (many of them applying for TDIU, aka Total Disability Based On Individual Unemployability) often seeing their appeals sit untouched in a queue for several years. The VA’s sluggish, sometimes inept, behavior in handling Regional Office cases – some of which simply need to be sent on to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals – is a big reason why it is essential to hire an expert veterans’ attorney or certified claims agent in order to speed up your case and get the favorable decision you deserve.
At the office of Attorney Sean Kendall in particular, we know the ins and outs of the VA disability benefits process (along with key officials at every Regional Office) well enough to not let your case linger. If you need help with your VA case, please call us today at 877-629-1712.