VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) all spoke about the future of the VA claims backlog following a Senate roundtable discussion. (Photo by Craig Roberts)

Legislators make public promise to solve backlog

The infamous VA benefits claims backlog is not a new phenomenon. The American Legion Magazine was bemoaning a 600,000 claim backlog in 1993. Today, claims processors’ in-boxes at the Department of Veterans Affairs are communally stacked at that same, stagnant 600,000 document height.

That the figure remains essentially unchanged, even after two decades of congressional and agency efforts to reduce it, frustrates and angers the veteran community and its advocates. However, in a pre-Memorial Day demonstration of concern for America’s wounded, injured, disabled and ill veterans, a number of congressmen, senators and cabinet members spent May 22 addressing the old issue, promising publicly that, this time, the problem will be solved.

The volatile VA backlog has reached the flashpoint as far as Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., is concerned. As the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs (HCVA), he has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of what to some observers appears to be little or no progress in trimming the waiting time to benefits for vast numbers of deserving veterans.

Accordingly, the Capitol Hill “backlog day” began with Miller’s opening of a Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing that was titled “Expediting Claims or Exploiting Statistics?: An Examination of VA’s Special Initiative to Process Rating Claims Pending Over Two Years.” VA’s recently announced “special initiative,” among other things, establishes a practice of issuing provisional decisions on claims, thus awarding temporary or partial compensation to veterans who have been waiting more than a year for a final decision on their cases.

Miller’s opening remarks echoed the hearing title. “Although this new approach sounds promising,” he said, “I think it’s critical that this committee work (with VA) closely to ensure that it’s good policy and not just good public relations.”

After committee members’ opening remarks, VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey was called to testify on early results of the new efforts. Hickey, a frequent committee witness lately in the benefits claims backlog battle, underwent two hours of questioning. She reported that new practices, developed in concert with The American Legion and announced the previous day, will result in an increase in the number of fully developed claims (FDCs) being processed. FDCs are those not needing further documentation and proof of authenticity in order to begin adjudication. Such a claim, since it is not halted midstream in order to gather additional information, clears the system much more quickly than so-called undeveloped claims.

The week before, VA announced that it was mandating overtime hours for its claims employees through September to help quell the backlog.

Miller cautioned that VA, in its efforts to clear the books of old claims, should not divert its energies away from processing new ones.

At midday, the committee’s ranking minority member, Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, staged a press conference featuring former Speaker of the House and now Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. They introduced a host of fellow congressional Democrats who, among them, have formulated a “Fighting for Veterans: Taking Action Against the VA Claims Backlog” ten-bill package that “seeks to bolster VA’s current efforts to modernize and foster further innovation in order to get veterans’ claims and compensation settled faster.”

Pelosi highlighted the work of the newest members of congress in the group to symbolize the fresh new ideas being advanced to meet the longstanding backlog challenge. Among the newcomers’ bills is Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s (D-Ariz.) “Efficiency Act” that requires the Department of Defense (DoD) to provide certified and complete electronic records to VA within 21 days of a servicemember’s separation from the military. Freshman Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, touted a bill to “expedite claims processing by educating veterans on the quickest route to receive their benefits.” Newly elected Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., announced a bill “encouraging the automation of certain VA claims.”

Another new member of Congress, Gloria Negrete-McLeod, D-Calif., is responsible for the “VA Claims Efficiency Through Information Act of 2013” which would “require VA to provide numerous data points in an online setting that would better detail the backlog...” Another congresswoman, Grace Meng, D-N.Y., wants VA to file annual reports on under-performing Regional Offices in order to motivate leadership. A fellow New Yorker, Democrat Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, wishes to extend VA’s authority to outsource medical exams to avoid “overwhelm(ing) the VA health care system” with an expected large influx of new veterans. Freshman congressman Paul Ruiz, a physician from California, is offering a bill that would mandate quarterly updates to Congress on how other federal agencies are responding to VBA’s request for information to support veterans’ benefits claims.

A second-term congresswoman, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, touted her “Pay As You Rate” bill requiring VA to “pay for medical conditions as they are adjudicated in an electronic system.”

The mainstays of Congress advanced their legislative agendas as well. A longstanding member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Tim Walz (D-Minn.) offered the “Quicker Benefits Delivery Act” that would allow claimants to furnish private medical evidence and opinions from competent medical providers in lieu of VA medical examinations, thus saving VA time and resources during claims processing.

Rep. Michaud himself advanced legislation that would establish “Claims Adjudication Centers of Excellence” under which VA would route its most challenging benefits claims, such as those dealing with PTSD and TBI to its highest performing offices. This concept is similar to one spoken of earlier in the day by Secretary Hickey during her testimony whereby claims of specific medical conditions would be examined by subject matter experts within VA claims processing staff.

The informal Capitol Hill “backlog day” did not end with the Democrats’ press conference. Later in the afternoon Senator Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., emerged from one of her trademark roundtable discussions; this one with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Acting Social Security Administrator Carolyn Colvin and others to update one another on the backlog. This, said the senator, was the first-ever get together of representatives from all agencies involved in veterans issues.

Mikulski said she was encouraged to learn that the Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service, which was also represented at the meeting, were doing well in providing necessary information about claimants to VA during the veterans benefits application process. She yielded the microphone to Shinseki and Hagel, who both acknowledged there was much more work to do, but said that they were committed to working together closely to solve the backlog problem. Hagel spoke of his recently announced decision to abandon existing electronic medical records development plans in favor of purchasing a new computerized system. This is the system by which DoD and VA would merge their data to streamline newly discharged servicemembers’ transitions into the VA medical system. Hagel explained that acquisition of the new system was not so much to address the current backlog crisis, but was part of a longer range modernization plan designed to mitigate such backlog problems in the future.

Mikulski ended the short press conference with an announcement that her Senate Appropriations Committee would make the readying of the Military Construction (Milcon) Appropriations Act for a Senate floor vote its first order of business. As for solving the backlog problem, the Maryland Democrat pronounced, "We want fire in the belly from the agencies and we want action.”

Coming full circle, the virtual “Backlog Day on The Hill” ended as it began with a presentation by House Committee on Veterans Affairs chairman Jeff Miller. Miller hosted a screening of the documentary film “High Ground,” which chronicles 11 wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and a Gold Star mother. As part of their spiritual and physical recovery from losses of limbs and - in the case of the mother, her child - the team climbed to the top of Nepal’s 20,000-foot Mount Lobuche. A discussion of the film followed.