by Aaron Glantz, Center for Investigative Reporting

The Department of Veterans Affairs has systematically missed nearly all of its internal benchmarks for reducing a hulking backlog of benefits claims and has quietly backed away from repeated promises to give all veterans and family members speedier decisions by 2015.

Navy veteran Wallace Watson of Fremont, Calif., applied for veteran disability benefits in September 2010 and recently got an exam. (Erik Verduzco/Center for Investigative Reporting)
Navy veteran Wallace Watson of Fremont, Calif., applied for veteran disability benefits in September 2010 and recently got an exam. (Erik Verduzco/Center for Investigative Reporting)

Internal VA documents, obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, show the agency processed 260,000 fewer claims than it thought it would during the past year and a half—falling 130,000 short in the 2012 fiscal year and another 130,000 short of its goal between October and March.

The result: At a time when the number of veterans facing long waits was supposed to be going down, it instead went up.

On April 29, the VA began to qualify its promise, made repeatedly since 2009, that “all claims” would be processed within four months by 2015.

In a weekly performance report posted on its website, the agency excludes a host of benefits from the promise—including veterans’ burial subsidies, pensions sought by survivors, and compensation claims from children of Vietnam veterans who have birth defects caused by the defoliant Agent Orange.

In an emailed statement, the VA said its promise to eliminate the claims backlog was never meant to cover those types of benefits.

The agency also said it is “using all the tools in the toolbox” to expedite claims. It again repeated its mantra that the delays are “unacceptable.” It added that it fell nearly 17,000 claims short of its production goal for April.

But the VA did not address questions about the fundamental issue: Are the goals unrealistic, the execution flawed or both?

Instead, the agency cited yet another set of ambitious goals: an April vow to clear all 2-year-old claims by mid-June and an order, issued May 15 by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, instructing all claims staff to work 20 hours of overtime a month through September, which the agency said would have “a measurable impact by the end of the fiscal year.”

The halfway point to the June deadline fell last week. Asked to provide data showing its progress to date, the agency said only that it was “closely monitoring” the initiative and would “have data to share on the progress of the two-year-old claim initiative in the near future.” The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs  has scheduled a hearing on that effort for today.

In interviews, VA workers called the plan to process all 2-year-old claims a “shell game,” because new claims are sitting on the shelf while old ones are decided.

Employees also are outraged about the mandatory overtime, said Amanda Schroeder, an Army veteran and union officer at the VA’s Portland, Ore., office. Burnout already is a factor without that added burden, she and others said.

It’s a completely inappropriate use of tax dollars to be completely unprepared for the amount of work that needs to be done and then force people to work 20 hours a month in overtime,” she said.

But veterans say they detect a difference already— even if they have yet to receive a check.

“After three years of waiting, I finally got an exam,” said Navy veteran Wallace Watson, 60, of Fremont, Calif.

Watson recently retired early from his job as a warehouse supervisor, hobbled by a bad knee. He injured it when he accidentally shot himself after helping rescue Vietnamese refugees following the fall of Saigon.

“For the first time, I feel like something is actually happening,” Watson said. “The exam room was crowded, and all the veterans there were upbeat.”

The VA repeatedly has brushed aside requests to share its internal production goals with members of Congress.

Last month, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs , Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked Shinseki whether there were any benchmarks to show progress toward the VA’s goals. Shinseki did not answer.

In one internal VA document, obtained by CIR, the agency projected that the ranks of veterans and family members waiting for disability benefits would increase to 895,000 between March and September, with 555,000 claims pending more than four months.

The document is dated April 22, a week after Sanders quizzed Shinseki in his committee hearing. Since then, Sanders has introduced legislation to require the VA to provide quarterly progress reports to Congress.

After seeing the document, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said it was time for President Barack Obama to become personally involved in fighting the VA backlog.

“Without a commitment from the president, VA’s oft-cited 2015 deadline will likely wind up to be the latest in the department’s string of broken backlog promises,” Miller said.

Miller’s statement came two weeks after a bipartisan group of 67 senators wrote to Obama making the same request. The White House did not respond to multiple inquiries for response from CIR.

The long delays and seemingly intractable nature of the claims backlog has led some lawmakers to look into radically overhauling the process.

Earlier this month, Rep. Bill Enyart, an Illinois Democrat and former adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, introduced legislation to require the VA to begin providing partial compensation to all veterans with claims pending more than 125 days—even if their disabilities had not yet been verified. If a claim denial ultimately followed, veterans would have to pay back the money only if they were found to have consciously misled the agency.

Minnesota Democrat Al Franken has introduced a similar measure in the Senate.

“I’m tired of meeting veterans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, who can’t work because they are disabled and are worried about losing their home,” Enyart said. “They deserve better than that.”

 To share your experience filing a disability claim with the VA, click here.

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