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Waco Tribune-Herald: Veterans wait longer for claims decisions as VA focuses on older cases

By Regina Dennis

A national focus on resolving older veterans benefits claims has unintentionally caused longer wait times for most veterans awaiting awards decisions.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in April launched a nationwide effort to prioritize claims pending for two years or longer.

The agency ordered that workers at all of its regional offices perform at least 20 hours of mandatory overtime each month to make rulings on those cases.

About 65,000 of those claims have been completed as of June 25, with 1,491 left to resolve, according to Waco VA Regional Office spokesman Tom Morley.

But when the older cases became a priority, it further delayed how long it would take claims processors to tackle other new and existing claims filed.

Twelve of the VA’s 57 regional offices now take more than 400 days on average to make a decision on a claim, according to the most recent data on the VA’s performance tracking website ASPIRE. The center in Los Angeles takes 568.1 days on average to make a claims decision, the highest in the country.

Last July, it took an average 378.8 days for the Waco regional office to process a claim, at the time it ranked the slowest in the nation. Now, that figure is up to 444.6 days.

The Houston regional office saw its average processing time climb from 274.4 days last summer to 414.6 days.

The Waco and Houston regional offices were responsible for 8,854 of the claims that were pending for two years or longer.

But the Waco regional office has been successful in tackling backlogged claims, which the VA defines as cases pending for 125 days or longer.

Last July, Waco’s backlog included 40,365 claims. That number is down to 27,430, a 32 percent drop, Morley said.

The reduction is partially because of additional claims processing assistance from the Texas Veterans Commission, which split 26 staff members between the Waco and Houston regional offices for a year-long effort aimed at expediting backlogged claims and helping veterans more accurately complete new claims applications.

VA officials warned legislators that a spike in other veterans’ wait times on claims could come from shifting the priority to older claims, U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, said.

Flores, who sits on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the VA also has transitioned to a new paperless system for filing and reviewing claims.

While the aim of the system is to reduce inefficiency and speed up processing, Flores said the agency expected some delays in productivity during the transition.

In addition, the VA this year temporarily halted claims processing at low-performing regional offices in Baltimore, Oakland and Los Angeles to retrain staff members. Those cases were transferred to other centers, including the ?Waco regional office, Flores said.

“At this point, we’re hopeful that the VA has this situation under control and that they’re on the right path, but we are watching them very, very closely,” Flores said.

The VA now is placing a priority on resolving an estimated 192,000 cases nationally that have been pending for a year or longer, Morley wrote in a statement.

Flores expects that as more of the outstanding claims are resolved, veterans will begin to see shorter wait times for a benefits decision during the coming year.

But he added that the spike exposes a larger need for the VA’s central administration to establish a better management strategy for processing claims before they end up sitting in the system.

2015 goal

Of the 833,130 cases pending nationally, 547,922 are considered backlogged, according to a report from Flores’ office. The VA has set a goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015.

Before the push to tackle older claims, the VA first saw wait times increase in 2010 when it had to prioritize 248,000 new and existing Vietnam War-era claims to account for three new presumed illnesses attached to Agent Orange exposure.

“It seems like the VA jumps from one crisis to another,” Flores said. “And instead of jumping from one crisis to another, it seems to me that we ought to have a master workload plan so that we’re better balancing our claims processing resources across all of our population of claims, and I think we’ll have a better outcome.”

Flores said the agency has told legislators that it has the appropriate funding and staffing to manage the claims workload.

But administrators have said the working culture must improve at regional offices to make sure employees are productive in managing their ?caseloads.

“You’ve got a lot of good people that are working the claims efficiently and effectively and accurately, and they see the person at the desk next to them that’s not working as hard, and that’s a morale destroyer,” Flores said, though he offered praise for workers at the Waco regional ?office.

“So there’s cultural aspects that we need to fix.”

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