Delays and errors at the VA greet returning warriors

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 15, 2013 

WASHINGTON -- The processing time for disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs worsened in a majority of its regional offices last year, and the VA has struggled with its much-anticipated plan to correct its problems, according to two recent audits and a review of department data.

The result for veterans is longer waits -- often for disability decisions that are incorrect.

The declining performance came in a year the VA was working to boost its performance, hoping to meet long-standing department goals to decide veterans’ claims faster and more accurately. Office by office, the department is switching to a new processing system designed to eliminate paper records, curtail pointless shuffling of files and speed decision-making. The VA plans to move all offices to the new system by the end of the year.

In recent months, however, performance has been slipping. Beyond that, two recent audits call into question the VA’s ability to transform the department as planned.

The department’s inspector general, in a report dated last week, said it was too early to know whether the new system would help the VA reach its goals.

The problems “have made the claims process more difficult, rather than improving efficiency as intended,” the report concluded. Users found that documents sometimes took three or four minutes to open. The system repeatedly crashed, and one VA worker told the inspector general it took two hours to process a key part of a claim in the new system -- twice as long as in the old system.

Rick Delaney, a Warner Robins resident who serves as national president of the Retired Enlisted Association, said most of the veterans he talks with are happy with their service from the VA in general.

“I have heard of no one really who has problems with how the VA operates,” he said. “The problem is getting into the system to start with.”

The Retired Enlisted Association works to protect veterans benefits.

The Government Accountability Office, which functions as Congress’ investigative arm, said the VA is proceeding without a clear, comprehensive plan.

“The agency risks spending limited resources on initiatives that may not speed up disability claims and appeals processes,” it concluded. “This may, in turn, result in forcing veterans to continue to wait months and even years to receive compensation for injuries incurred during their service to the country.”

In response to both reports, the VA said much of the criticism was outdated and that the phase-in of its new system allows the department to correct problems along the way. The department said it’s optimistic about hitting its speed and accuracy goals by 2015.

According to a McClatchy Newspapers review of department data, the performance at regional offices deteriorated throughout 2012. The department’s long-term goals are that no disability claim is pending more than 125 days and that errors occur in just 2 percent of claims.

From fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2012, the VA’s processing speed jumped from an average of 188 days to complete a claim to 262 days, according to the VA. The error rate went down slightly, from 16 percent to 14 percent.

The Atlanta regional office was better than many, but not as good as most. The data shows 66 percent of claims were pending for more than 125 days in January 2012 and was almost unchanged by December.

The nation’s worst regional office was Baltimore, which at the end of the year had a 26 percent error rate. The regional office that came closest to the VA’s goal was Lincoln, Neb., with an error rate of 4 percent.

Telegraph writer Wayne Crenshaw contributed to this report.

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