Today, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs held an oversight hearing entitled "Reclaiming the Process: Examining the VBA Claims Transformation Plan as a Means to Effectively Serve Our Veterans." At the hearing, the Committee learned that VA has yet to completely implement a comprehensive transformation plan to provide veterans with a paperless disability claims process that relies on accuracy the first time a claim is submitted.
"Various initiatives have great potential, but despite repeated promises, the backlog continues to grow," stated Rep. Gus Bilirakis, Vice Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "In addition, the rate of accuracy and processing time has remained stagnant. Since 2009, Secretary Shinseki has promised to "break the back of the backlog.' Instead, three years later, the backlog has grown by half a million claims."
The hearing focused on VBA's transformation plan, which centers on the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), a program that is supposed to digitize disability claims and make the process more timely and accurate. Yet, only a handful of Regional Offices are using VBMS to help process claims with full roll out scheduled later this year. VA has consistently referred to VBMS as the cornerstone of its transformation process.
VA's main partner to digitize veterans' claims is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Their contract with VA expires next week and NARA officials cited the need for an estimated 4,000 additional employees to address the current backlog.
VA announced earlier today that the backlog increase due to the processing of retroactive Agent Orange claims has been largely addressed, and that should free up claims processors around the country. As of today, however, VA's backlog stands at 839,028 claims, of which more than 55% have been pending more than 125 days.
In addition, the Committee continued to question VA on its justification of exorbitant bonuses to well-paid senior executives who oversee the worsening claims process, especially in light of today's tough economy and tight fiscal climate.
"Secretary Shinseki estimates that more than 1 million veterans from Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom are expected to enter VA. What will happen to the backlog then? Will veterans be stuck in the system indefinitely? It is time for VA to uphold its responsibility, to our veterans and to the American people, to break this cycle of unproductively and deliver the benefits that VA was created to provide," said Bilirakis."Every one of these claims represents a veteran and their family patiently waiting, not just a stack of paper on a bureaucrat's desk. Technology should and must be used as there is a lot of innovation in the marketplace today to address many of these issues. But technology alone is not the silver bullet, and it is clear to me it will take continued oversight and pressure from Congress and veterans before VA turns a corner."