Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki promised to fix the broken disabilities claim system, but an internal report says things have gotten worse. (Brendan Hoffman)

Broken Promise

Veterans Die Waiting For Benefits As VA Claims Backlog Builds

A VA internal report shows that the computerized system intended to fix the benefits backlog problem is adding to it. Jamie Reno reports.

Despite Secretary Eric Shinseki’s oft-repeated pledge to fix the Department of Veteran Affairs broken disabilities claim system by 2015, the problems have gotten worse, according to a scathing new internal report.

Claims now take an average of 272 days to be processed—an increase of nearly 40 percent from 2011—with some lingering for as long as a year. The error rate now hovers around 14 percent, and the mountainous backlog stands at nearly 900,000, as 53 veterans reportedly die each day waiting for their benefits, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The VA's disability claims crisis has only been made worse by the department's high-tech new computerized system intended to streamline the benefits process, according to the strongly worded report (PDF) from the department’s Office of the Inspector General. The $500 million computerized Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) has no implementation plan and is riddled with problems, including disorganized electronic claims folders and improper management of hard-copy claims.

While VA spokesman Randy Noller tells The Daily Beast that the department still believes that it can live up to Shinseki’s pledge to eliminate the backlog by 2015, reduce the processing time on all claims to 125 days or less, and cut the error rate to 2 percent, the OIG concluded that given the slow and complex nature of this transition from paper to computers, the VA will “continue to face challenges in meeting its goal of eliminating the backlog of disability claims” by 2015—and veterans' advocates dismissed the goal as nearly impossible to meet.

In December, the VA touted its “paperless, digital disability claims system” as “a lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog.”

But at the four Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) regional offices where the new system was deployed under a pilot program, OIG found it took even longer to process a claim than the VA's old paper system. Despite that failure, 18 regional offices have begun the conversion to the new system, and the remaining 38 are expected to make the switch by the end of the year.

“VBA should immediately develop and implement a robust plan so that its computer system operates properly and VBA can begin processing claims in an accurate and timely manner,” says Paul Sullivan, a longtime veterans' advocate and director of veteran outreach at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that focuses solely on veteran disability issues.  “Veterans are justifiably frustrated at the deteriorating claims crisis, especially the lack of planning to fix it. Nearly one million veterans now wait nine months for a VBA decision that is wrong as much as 30 percent of the time. How many of our veterans will die waiting for a VBA claim decision that is often wrong?”

In a written response to the OIG’s criticisms, the VA said the “excessive” emphasis in the report on the problems with the new electronic claims processing system is “misplaced,” and that while it has taken steps to resolve the issues identified during the rollout of the new system, it expects to “address risks and issues as they are identified.”

Meantime, the nationwide disability claims mess continues unabated. At many VA offices it now takes more than a year for veterans to get their claims processed. In Baltimore, the Baltimore Sun recently reported the error rate on claims is 26 percent, more than any other office in the nation. And a recent OIG inspection of VBA’s Regional Office in Detroit also revealed serious problems. The OIG says Detroit staff did not accurately process 31 (52 percent) of the 60 disability claims reviewed.

“I hear from veterans all the time who are distraught because they are waiting for a claim to be adjudicated,” says Anthony Hardie, a veterans' advocate and Gulf War veteran who’s testified numerous times before Congress on Gulf War Illness and other issues. “There’s a feeling of hopelessness, a feeling that you are up against an uncaring, unfeeling bureaucracy. It can be overwhelming.”

“When I left the military in 1993 there was a claims backlog,” he says.  “Twenty years later there is still a claims backlog. It makes my blood boil.”

“How many of our veterans will die waiting for a VBA claim decision that is often wrong?”

Veterans advocates say the VA’s ongoing failure to fix what’s broken has had profound repercussions. While awaiting their claims decisions many veterans are losing their homes, unable to pay their bills, and worse. Advocates have also pointed to the claims crisis as one factor that could be contributing to the increase in veteran suicides.

There were an average of 22 veteran suicides per day in 2010, according to a newly released VA study. up from 18 per day in 2007. Most of those are older veterans, rather than those who served after 9/11. The real suicide numbers may be higher, though, since the VA’s statistics are based on death certificates from 21 states not including California or Texas, which have the largest population of veterans.

"I believe the secretary, as well as President Obama, care about veterans and are motivated to fix this problem, unlike the previous administration," says Gene Jones, a veterans' advocate and member of the board of directors of Veterans for Common Sense, a national nonprofit veterans service organization. "But it’s a convoluted issue. We’re talking about an enormous bureaucracy that works well in some places around the country, but not in others. We need to encourage VA to keep working to fix this and do what we can to help them. But something has to change, and if it doesn’t we need to start firing people. The claims problem is a national crisis."

Hardie agrees. “We all hope this new computerized system will be a success,” he says. “But we have heard this before. VA leadership just keeps making the same promises. Apple and Google are changing our planet, yet in this age of technology it is unimaginable that the VA can’t tap into these technological advances to solve these problems.”

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