The Department of Veterans Affairs' efforts to transform its broken disability claims process is yielding concrete results, despite a growing number of cases, a senior VA official told a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee Wednesday.
Allison A. Hickey, undersecretary for benefits for the VA, said training initiatives and a new paperless system being introduced are yielding faster and more accurate decisions on pending claims.
"Why do I think it will work?" Hickey asked. "Because nothing in this plan is Powerpoint."
The chairman of the oversight committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), speaking at the start of the hearing by the subcommittee on national security, homeland defense and foreign operations, dismissed the VA's claims of progress. "We've heard it before," he said.
The backlog of claims filed by veterans seeking disability benefits has soared in recent years as troops have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and because of a policy change making it easier for Vietnam veterans to file Agent Orange-related claims.
As of Tuesday, the number of claims was 919,461, including 66 percent pending for more than 125 days. In April, when the House Veterans' Affairs Committee held a hearing on the issue, the backlog was 903,000.
Hickey noted that the VA completed a "record-breaking" 1 million claims in the past two years and is on pace this year to do the same. "Yet the receipts continue to greatly outnumber the outputs," she said.
The new digital, paperless system to process and track disability claims has been implemented at four regional offices, and is set to be installed in 12 more offices by the end of the fiscal year. It is supposed to be set up in all 56 VA regional offices by the end of 2013.
"If you have ever walked into a regional office, you have seen stacks and stacks of paper," Hickey said. "Our task, our transformation plan, is to eliminate this antiquated, paper-bound process that does not serve our veterans, who are frustrated by its lack of speed and transparency."
Rather than sifting through 18-inch-thick stacks of paper to find information, a VA rater using the digital system can find the pertinent data in seconds, she said.
Hickey said new VA staff members who have received the redesigned training are completing 150 percent more claims per day with a 30 percent increase in accuracy than employees trained under the previous program.
"We're seeing some phenomenal results," Hickey said.
Veterans representatives at the hearing praised the reforms but said many problems still plague the system.
"The backlog of claims is staggering, and the quality of the claims decisions remains far too low," said Joseph A. Violante, national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans.
"The backlog is a symptom, not the root cause," Violante said. "In order to achieve real and lasting success, [the VA] must instead remain focused on creating a claims processing system that is carefully designed to get each claim done right the first time."
By Steve Vogel
July 19, 2012