On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs will meet to address the backlog of veterans waiting for their benefits claims to be processed, an issue the Center for Investigative Reporting has been following closely.
CIR reporter Aaron Glantz reported that the veterans backlog has worsened under President Barack Obama. Currently, the number of veterans waiting is about 900,000 and is expected to top a million by the end of March. New data show that the Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to quickly provide benefits for newly returning veterans, including compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries, as well as for Vietnam veterans filing claims for Agent Orange-related illnesses.
An editorial in The New York Times today called it a “distressing portrait of an agency buried helplessly in paperwork – with a claims backlog that has gotten far worse in the past four years.”
Here’s a cheat sheet for Wednesday’s hearing.
What’s new: The backlog is worse than we thought
The Department of Veterans Affairs say it takes 273 days to process a claim, but our investigation has found that veterans filing their first claim, including those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, wait nearly two months longer, between 316 and 327 days. That means if you are a veteran filing your claim today, it would take nearly a year, depending on where you live, before you see any benefits.
The backlog is worse under Obama, but is it his fault?
Since Obama took office, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits grew from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 in December – an increase of more than 2,000 percent. And the backlog is growing at a rate faster than the veterans are returning.
Internal VA documents show that the average wait time for veterans filing disability claims fell by more than a third under President George W. Bush, even as more than 320,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans filed disability claims.
The million-dollar question: What is the Obama administration going to do about it?
During his re-election campaign, Obama promised to put a priority on veterans benefits, especially mental health coverage and securing jobs. In his State of the Union speech he said:
"We will keep faith with our veterans – investing in world-class care, including mental health care, for our wounded warriors; supporting our military families; and giving our veterans the benefits, education and job opportunities they have earned."
But so far, the administration’s effort to slow the growth of the backlog have not worked. When CIR asked for an official White House comment, the only response came from the VA office.
Is it a paperwork problem?
This photo by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Veterans Affairs demonstrates how bad the paper backlog is. “In August, the VA’s inspector general said the weight of paper files at the agency’s Winston-Salem, N.C., office had compromised the structural integrity of the building,” reports Glantz.
But there also could be a staffing shortage. Since 2010, the agency says it has hired 3,300 more claims processors, but the VA also lost 2,000 workers who were “temporarily paid through stimulus funds” and because of turnover.
Workers say there isn’t enough manpower to keep up with the dramatic increase in claims.
Go digital: The VA is working on it … sort of
The agency has spent $537 million to digitize these claims, but documents obtained by CIR reveal 97 percent of all veterans’ claims are still on paper. In other words, four years and more than half a billion dollars later, 3 percent of all claims are digitized.
Who is accountable?
The Department of Veterans Affairs is the federal agency responsible for ensuring the care of veterans and their families. It is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and its 58 regional offices nationwide administer a variety of benefits, from the GI Bill to disability compensation and old age pension benefits.
The VA's Office of Inspector General provides oversight and conducts audits and evaluations of the performance of the regional offices. See performance evaluations for some of the 58 regional offices.
The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs provides congressional oversight. It makes recommendations for legislation to expand, reduce or fine-tune laws related to veterans' benefits. Additionally, the committee has oversight responsibility for the VA, ensuring the agency functions properly. The Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs is charged with managing the status of the VA's disability claims within the regional offices. See the full committee’s membership and contact information.
The House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform is the watchdog agency for the U.S. government. It ensures tax dollars are spent appropriately and holds the federal government accountable to taxpayers. In July, the committee held a hearing to address the steps taken by the VA to eliminate the disability claims backlog. Click here to see the committee's membership and contact information. For testimony and reports from the July hearing, click here.
For more resources click here.
Location matters: How long is the wait near you?
For those filing for the first time in major population centers like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the wait can be nearly twice as long as for those filing in other parts of the country. Are you a veteran who has returned home? What is life like for you?
CIR Public Engagement Manager Marie McIntosh contributed to this post.