WASHINGTON – The Veterans Affairs Department is chipping away at a massive inventory of disability claims for veterans, reducing the number of claims considered backlogged by about 13 percent in recent weeks.
Republican lawmakers are skeptical that the trend will continue, but they've been unable to agree on a solution to a problem that has become a major headache for the Obama administration.
The VA pays disability benefits to veterans who are injured or become ill as a result of their active service. For years, veterans have complained that it takes too long for their claims to be resolved. In late March, more than 611,000 claims, or about 70 percent, were pending longer than 125 days.
But in recent months, the department has taken steps to try to deal with the backlog. The oldest claims in the system were moved to the front of the line and claims processors were required to work at least 20 hours of overtime each month. That has helped to reduce the backlog to just over 531,000, the VA said Thursday.
Among the claims cleared were about 65,000 cases that had been pending for longer than two years. About 2,000 such cases remain.
VA spokesman Josh Taylor said long-term changes, including moving to a new computer system, also have had an impact.
Although the progress appears to have bought the department some time on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are still looking for a long-term solution to the backlog issue.
Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, reiterated his calls for an independent commission to examine the root causes of the problem and more direct involvement from President Barack Obama.
"If we can't bring collectively all the people to the table to help resolve it, I don't see a solution out there," Miller said Thursday at an event sponsored by Concerned Veterans for America, a political advocacy group.
But Sen. Richard Burr, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said he views commissions as a tool to provide the VA with more time.
"Time has run out. Now is the time we need to begin to fix it," Burr said in an interview after his speech to the group. "I think if we set up a commission that is not charged with fixing the problem now, then all we've done is say, 'We're going to wait until 2015 to see if this works or not.'"
The backlog in claims exploded in 2010 after the VA expanded the list of illnesses presumed to have been caused by Agent Orange.
That decision pumped about 260,000 previously denied and new claims into the system and required the VA to redirect nearly a third of its disability claims workers to completing just those Agent Orange claims. The overall bottleneck grew exponentially when combined with other factors, such as the latest generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan returned from war.
Digging deep into the data, the Center for Investigative Reporting put the problem into greater context. It found that the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits grew from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 in December, which also happened to track Obama's tenure in office.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said that some of the major veterans groups, including the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion, have helped calm the waters on Capitol Hill. Those groups have said the department, led by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, is moving in the right direction.
"We've got to ask ourselves how this problem began," Sanders said. "Until Shinseki came in, until an Obama administration came in, there was no plan to move from an absurd and outdated paper system to a digital system."
Sanders backs legislation that would put new reporting requirements on the VA to help lawmakers more closely track whether the department is meetings its goal to eliminate the claims backlog by 2015. He said he believes the proposal would have bipartisan support. However, it wouldn't establish a commission, as favored by Republicans in the House.
Sanders said he believes the VA's progress is real, and that a commission would only complicate the job of VA administrators.
"Instead of doing the work they have to do, they're going to be reporting to a commission," Sanders said. "The key people who are supposed to be transforming the system are now going to meetings, answering questions and filling out forms instead of doing the job they're supposed to be doing."
But Miller said he's not convinced the problem is solved. Even if the numbers are showing progress, he said, it's a long way from ending the backlog in 2015, as Shinseki has promised.
Miller said the goal won't be met without a commitment from Obama and a conscious effort to look outside the government for help. He said the commission would bring in that perspective and generate an honest assessment about VA's capabilities.
Burr acknowledged that he's not sure what more Congress could do to help the VA attack the backlog, but he said the VA needed to spell out exactly what it needs.
Both Republicans took care not to blame Shinseki directly.
"I clearly don't think the staff has raised to the level of the secretary all the challenges that exist at the VA. If they did, I think the secretary would spend the majority of his time in Washington and not flying around the country looking at clinics," Burr said.
The organization that played host to the forum Thursday, Concerned Veterans for America, has called for Shinseki's resignation. The group's CEO, Pete Hegseth, didn't back off that call, saying it was a matter of accountability. But the organization is clearly in the minority. One of the groups at the event, AMVETS, warned earlier this week in an op-ed that "Shinseki's critics would eat their words."
One of Shinseki's predecessors, former VA Secretary Anthony Principi, said he believes calling for Shinseki's resignation was like seeking to fire a lighthouse keeper because the fog is so thick no one can see the light. He said too many veterans are qualifying for benefits even if it's not clear their illnesses or injuries are related to their active service.
"When everyone is first priority, no one is," Principi said.