The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has reduced its chronic backlog of veterans’ disability claims – deemed unacceptable by President Barack Obama when he campaigned for office – but so far, the agency is struggling to meet its self-imposed deadline of eliminating long wait times by 2015.
And despite making inroads over the last two years in streamlining the system for compensating conditions such as service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer, the VA is back to square one in some ways.
At the time of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, more than 400,000 veterans were waiting to learn whether they qualified for benefits. Four years later, their ranks had more than doubled. At the end of June, about 360,000 veterans were waiting.
The official backlog, calculated based on the number of veterans waiting more than four months for a decision, also ballooned before declining to 122,000 at the end of June – about 25,000 fewer than during Obama’s first year in office.
This is not the type of progress a campaigning Obama envisaged when he took the podium at a community college in Mason City, Iowa, in October 2007. Congressional hearings and damning news accounts had exposed wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans ending up homeless while they waited for their disability checks.
“As president, I won’t stand for hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting for benefits,” Obama told his audience.
“When 400,000 veterans are stuck on a waiting list for claims, we need a new sense of urgency in this country,” he said. “And when we’ve got young veterans of a misguided war in Iraq sleeping on the streets of our cities and towns, we need a change in Washington.”
By 2013, that change had come in the form of exploding wait times – from an average of almost four months when Obama took office to a peak of more than nine months. The average wait has declined since then, but it remains about a week longer than it was under his predecessor, President George W. Bush.
During Obama’s first four years in office, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for a decision increased by more than 2,000 percent, from 11,000 to a peak of more than 250,000 in March 2013.
At the end of June, 15,583 veterans faced that lengthy delay.
So what happened? Administration officials have blamed the return of hundreds of thousands of Americans from Iraq and Afghanistan atop fresh claims from Vietnam veterans who were, for the first time, allowed to file disability claims for a host of diseases caused by Agent Orange.
Until The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed the true size of the exploding backlog in March 2013, however, it went largely unnoticed. Absent public scrutiny, many of the administration’s efforts fell apart in implementation.
Although the VA had spent more than half a billion dollars on a new computer system, 97 percent of claims remained on paper. The paper crisis was so bad, in fact, that the VA’s inspector general found that the federal building in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, literally was sagging under the weight of all the paperwork.
Through it all, the VA exhibited an extreme lack of consistency, with veterans facing radically different waits for benefits depending on where they lived. A map created by CIR has tracked that phenomenon for the last three years.
Click here to view the map
Today, significant variations remain. Veterans in Nevada still wait nearly five months for an answer, for example, about twice as long as those in Montana.
After CIR published its investigation, media outlets from The New York Times to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” took note. Pressure built in Congress, with 67 senators and 164 members of the House of Representatives writing to the president demanding action.
And so, the VA reacted. The long-delayed computer system was launched, and then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki ordered VA claims processors across the country to work overtime to bring down the backlog.
Today, agency officials continue to maintain that they will do away with the backlog and that by the end of this year, no veteran will have to wait more than 125 days for a decision on disability compensation, fulfilling a promise Shinseki made in 2010.
“We’re not yet finished with the year,” VA spokesman Randal Noller said in an email.
In a statement, the agency said it has solved its paperwork problem, with veterans now able to file claims, upload evidence and check status online.
“Claims transformation has paid great dividends with advances in electronic operations,” the statement said. “In 2015, 95 percent of claims are processed electronically – a tremendous difference from just a few years ago when claims processors handled 5,000 tons of paper annually, the equivalent of 200 Empire State Buildings stacked end-to-end.”
But tackling the remaining 122,000 backlogged claims by year’s end remains a tall order, as some simple math reveals: Since its peak in March 2013, the number of veterans facing what the agency considers unacceptably long waits has dropped by about 17,000 a month. At that rate, the VA would fall about 20,000 veterans short of its goal.
However, in recent months, the agency appears to be in a kind of bureaucratic sprint, reducing the backlog by more than 22,500 claims a month since March – fast enough to end the backlog before Christmas if it can keep up the pace.
But does the five-year-old promise to eliminate the backlog this year still stand? It was notably missing from a speech on veterans’ issues delivered Tuesday by the president.
Addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Pittsburgh, Obama pledged “to keep cutting the disability claims backlog,” noting that “since its peak two years ago, we’ve now cut the backlog by 80 percent.”
“We’re going to keep bringing it down,” he added.
Shane Shifflet contributed to this story. This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Aaron Glantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Aaron_Glantz.