The Department of Veterans Affairs has proudly announced a reduction in its backlog of disability claims from nearly 600,000 to 490,000 between March and August. But it’s less than meets the eye.
An investigation by The Washington Post suggests that the rate of progress cannot be sustained, and indicates that the VA has not solved the problems that created the huge backlog in the first place.
The catch-up work was accomplished by authorizing VA claims processors to put in up to 20 hours of overtime each month (at a cost of $44 million) and by physically shipping casework files from overworked offices to those with lesser workloads.
Unfortunately some files got lost in the shuffle, the Post reported. The VA, it seems, has not caught up with modern data processing and electronic records.
Meanwhile, over 80 percent of the backlog remains to be processed. Those claims are more than 125 days old; some are expected to take years to settle.
What is worse, according to the Post report, is that the VA’s personnel practices tend to exacerbate the pile-up of complicated cases.
Claims processors are rewarded or punished for the number of cases they process, not the quality of their work. Indeed, they can compete for bonuses based on the number of cases they handle without respect to complexity.
In 2011, the VA paid $5.5 million in bonuses for “excellent” performances that effectively encouraged personnel to avoid claims that needed extra work, the Post reported.
That was more than two years after a study for the VA by the Center for Naval Analyses found that the claims backlog was disproportionately composed of “difficult” cases and recommended that the point system used to reward claims processors should be revised to recognize that some cases take more work than others to resolve.
Instead, the point system was altered to emphasize speedy processing. Commenting on the dilemma faced by his colleagues, one VA claims processor told the Post, “Your backlog is over here. But your points are in this direction. How stupid is that?”
Indeed, regional VA offices gave bonuses to employees even as their backlogs grew larger.
As the Post reported: “Records show some of the most troubled offices gave their employees the most extra pay.”
President Obama praised the VA’s backlog reduction in a speech at the Aug. 10 convention of disabled veterans in Orlando. But apparently the Cabinet agency is not as well managed as he thinks it is.
The president should do something about it in fairness to the hundreds of thousands of veterans seeking help with their service-connected disabilities.