Getting VA Backlog News from the Internet: A Story

As our story opens, it’s noon today and I’m on the website of one Leo Shane III, a reporter with Stars and Stripes. Looking back through my browsing history, I have no idea if I the link I clicked on to arrive at his site was on Facebook, Twitter, or another of the half-dozen open tabs on my browser (some of which are related to unfinished blog posts from days ago). Shane has graphed the VA disability claims backlog from 2010-present. When I saw that Shane superimposed the backlog on the entirety of pending disability claims, I decided to have fun asking questions about the story at work here.

Credit: Leo Shane III

Credit: Leo Shane III

The number of pending claims was slowly increasing until the last quarter of 2010, when it suddenly skyrocketed by what looks like around 150,000. Because the VA defines a backlogged claim as one that has been pending for more than 125 days without a rating decision, the jump in pending claims took an additional quarter to show up in the backlog.

I immediately began searching for explanations to the sudden increase in 2010. Some folks will probably assume that it results from the influx of veterans filing claims as US participation in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down. For a moment I hypothesized that veterans advocates are increasingly breaking through the military culture of service as a one-way street in which servicemembers are taught that it’s selfish and unpatriotic to claim one’s benefits upon one’s honorable discharge. But these would seem to result in more gradual increases than the one depicted in the graph. I headed to the website of the Veterans Business Administration (VBA) for more details on the claims process.

In the VBA’s Monday Morning Workload Reports, for every answer I found, I discovered another question. Why, for example, are such large percentages of pending claims coming from Gulf War and Vietnam-era vets? By this point, I was really excited at the developing opportunity to show off my analytical skills and policy expertise. It’s not easy to make an interesting subject, original thoughts, and writing motivation all happen at the same time.

backlog demographics

Next, I realized that Brandon Friedman had already resolved my pontifications, rendering my original post totally obsolete. The sudden leap in pending disability claims in 2010 was a result of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s decision about how to address the backlog:

On the January afternoon Eric Shinseki took over as the nation’s seventh VA secretary… the former Army chief of staff faced a paper mountain of 391,127 separate disability claims—filed by veterans from every conflict since World War II. Nearly a quarter of the claims (more than 85,000) had been languishing in the system for more than six months.

One of Shinseki’s first acts in addressing the backlog, then, was to recognize that 180 days was neither useful as a measurement, nor fair to veterans: VA had to turn around claims faster—and the department had to hold itself to a higher standard.

Therefore, the new standard for deciding a disability claim became 125 days.

The bad news for VA—at least from a PR standpoint—was that it immediately added 62,000 claims to what then became known as the “backlog.” The 85,000 or so claims in the backlog pile nearby doubled to 150,000 overnight, putting it well into six figures for the first time.

In addition to lowering the threshold for what constitutes a backlogged claim, Shinseki expanded eligibility for two groups. For Vietnam-era vets, he lifted prohibitions on eligibility for certain disabilities related to Agent Orange exposure. For Iraq and Afghanistan era-vets seeking a PTSD rating, Shinseki dropped the requirement (nearly impossible to meet after the fact of service in a chaotic war zone) to prove exposure to a specific traumatic event.

Then the VA expanded outreach to veterans of past eras, many of whom had previously given up on the disability claims process. Together, these policies dramatically increased the number of disability claims even as the VA was facing pressure to reduce the backlog.

And that leaves us where we are today. Ultimately, if the VA wants to process disability claims in a timely manner, it needs to do so with the aid of computers and the internet. Friedman finishes his report by noting that the VA is finally, legitimately, transitioning to a digital claims process:

…in January 2010, VA began to conceive of plans to automate the claims process. Planning for a fully electronic system was complete by June 2010 and the Veterans Benefits Management System, or VBMS, was well on its way to becoming a reality.

The process of planning, procuring, pilot testing, and deploying in limited areas took nearly three years. But by December 2012, VA was fielding VBMS department-wide.

By May 2013, the system was in more than 90% of VA regional offices.

At this point, VBMS is still a work in progress, and the IT infrastructure on which it is built is still not completely renovated. But there is no doubt it is coming online.

The idea that the VA would, in 2013, even be in the partially finished process of transitioning from the recording of information on dead trees still seems like a comically outdated absurdity (my disability claim and ultimately successful appeals were all on paper in 2006-7), but Friedman’s report is heartening at least.

In the last quarter or so, pending and backlogged claims have tracked closely in decreasing by about 100,000 to 489,390 as reflected in Shane’s chart. This is largely due to an April decision to “make provisional decisions on [claims more than a year old].” Once a provisional decision is made, the claimant has a year to submit additional evidence before the claim is ruled permanent and can only be changed via the formal appeal process.

Thus the immediate-term decrease in pending claims we’re seeing may be somewhat misleading since some of these provisional decisions will undoubtedly be appealed when the time comes. Friedman asserts that “many, if not most, will not” but doesn’t substantiate his assertion. For now, we can only hope that most claimants find their provisional decision a fair one.

Then as I was writing my revision, the VA tweeted this (along with an updated chart):

Credit: Department of Veterans Affairs

Credit: Department of Veterans Affairs

So, in the end, there was good news for disabled vets today.

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