WASHINGTON – Lawmakers grilled a top Veterans Affairs official Wednesday about the Obama administration’s plan to address growing bureaucratic problems for veterans who seek disability benefits.

Roughly 70 percent of the 896,000 claims now with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have been pending for more than the 125 days that the department set as its goal.

Since 2011, the average processing time has increased from 182 days to 279 days, while many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan face delays ranging from 300 to nearly 650 days, depending on where they live.

While the situation at the Togus Regional Office near Augusta is better than at most facilities — with 30 percent of claims taking longer than 125 days to process — members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said the overall situation is unacceptable.

“The VA’s demonstrated history shows its inability or refusal to forecast problems and anticipate its needs, and the only people paying the price for the failure of the VA are the veterans,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman. “The time for excuses is over.”

Miller and Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, convened Wednesday’s hearing in a week that marked the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

With U.S. combat operations in Iraq complete and the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, the Department of Veterans Affairs is processing record numbers of disability compensation claims but struggling to keep pace.

“It’s an old adage that a benefit delayed is a benefit denied,” Michaud said. “Far too many veterans are waiting far too many days to receive the benefits they have earned.”

Retired Brig. Gen. Allison Hickey, the department’s under secretary for benefits, said the department remains committed to its goal of processing all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.

And an online claims filing and tracking system being phased in this spring will go a long way toward speeding up the process, Hickey told the committee.

“None of us at the VA find it acceptable … that it takes too long to get a veteran an answer on their claim,” Hickey said. “But we are well on our way and on a path” to reducing the backlog.

The Togus facility ranks among the more efficient regional offices. According to figures supplied by Michaud’s office, Togus processed about 70 percent of its claims within 125 days and had a 96 percent accuracy rate in the past three months. But that leaves more than 411 veterans whose claims have been pending for 125 days or longer.

The most serious backlogs are in metropolitan areas. In Los Angeles, for instance, the average processing time was 506 days, and about 80 percent of claims were pending more than 125 days.

Other facilities where average waits exceed 300 days are in Baltimore; Phoenix; Reno, Nev.; Oakland, Calif.; and Waco, Texas.

Michaud said after the hearing that he believes Togus benefits from relatively low employee turnover, which means there are more experienced workers to handle complicated claims.

During the hearing, Michaud recommended that the Department of Veterans Affairs consider breaking up more complex applications seeking claims for multiple medical conditions. The more complicated conditions — such as traumatic brain injury — could be sent to more experienced and proficient staffers, he said.

“That is exactly part of the look we are taking from a strategy perspective,” Hickey told Michaud.

In Maine, Sheri Drake with the American Legion credited Togus and its employees for their hard work and willingness to take on challenging cases. As an assistant service officer, Drake works for nongovernmental groups that help veterans or their families navigate the complex claims processing system.

As part of the recent changes, the department is putting more burden on the service officers to compile all of the necessary information.

Drake said she hopes the transition to an online system will help but there are still aspects to be worked out, such as notifying service officers when a veteran receives new information from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Hickey said the decision in 2009 to accept more disability claims for Vietnam veterans who potentially were exposed to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange flooded the system with 260,000 additional claims.

Hickey said that after work on Agent Orange claims was complete, she directed regional offices to have their staffs focus on other claims that had been pending for two years or longer.

Focusing on new claims would have helped reduce the average wait, but Hickey said the department is trying to resolve the most delinquent claims first.

On Tuesday, Miller said he would like to see Hickey resign because of the backlog. But several veterans organizations, including Disabled Veterans of America, submitted written testimony praising Hickey’s leadership and work with the groups to address concerns.

Although he’s concerned about the backlog, Michaud has not pushed for Hickey’s resignation.

“He’s concerned that a change in leadership at (the Veterans Benefits Administration) at this time would force things to start all over again,” said Ed Gilman, Michaud’s spokesman. “A replacement would have a steep learning curve and possibly further delay much-needed reforms to VA’s processing.”

 

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC