The backlog of disability claims at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has catapulted the agency into an unwanted spotlight. Unlike other scandals besetting the Obama administration, there is nothing to indicate that the VA is targeting conservative vets with systematic delays or passing their telephone records along to the Justice Department. Simply put, the VA backlog has grown because of the technical burdens veterans face in navigating a complex process in a vast bureaucracy.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki promises to do his best to reduce the backlog. So far, his most visible step is a dictate that VA employees who review claims work mandatory overtime to tackle the problem, which is staggering. As of June 22, VA reported that 833,130 vets had pending compensation and pension (C&P) claims. That’s more people than reside in San Francisco. If these claimants represented a single city, it would be the 14th largest in America. Backlogged claims, defined as those pending more than 125 days, represent nearly two-thirds of that total.
Most of the discussion of the claims backlog misses the mark. Secretary Shinseki and others at VA repeatedly tell us that the key to reducing the backlog is computerization. VA’s goal is to move from paper records to digital ones. It’s a good talking point, but it won’t get the job done any time soon.
The implementation of digital technology is important going forward, but it won’t do anything for the millions of veterans whose military records are old, faded pieces of paper. Newly discharged veterans may well be able to provide VA with electronic records, but the odds drop to near zero for veterans of previous eras.
Veterans who need to file a claim must first obtain their military records. For vets relegated to paper, these records are stored somewhere in America; the exact location depends on the military branch in which they served and when they served. Once the paper has been retrieved, the veteran must go through the pages one at a time and determine which ones provide evidence to support his or her claim.
VA can obtain a veteran’s military record and review it for evidence, but veterans need to ask themselves whether a claims reviewer or they themselves will be more thorough in identifying the necessary evidence. There are veterans’ groups that can assist with assembling C&P claims, and this a valuable service, but for most vets the process still relies on paper. Technology is no quick fix for what ails VA today. It will do little to reduce paper at the source, meaning the paper problem will continue to plague the front end of the process for many years.
Meanwhile, the other prevailing narratives describing the reasons for the backlog are also false. We are told that VA is swamped with claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and with Agent Orange claims. In fact, claims filed by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans represent only about one-fifth of all pending claims and just 23 percent of backlogged claims. Two-thirds of all pending claims — 67 percent — were filed by older veterans of the Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. Claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are often more complex than those from veterans of other wars, but they still account for only a small portion of the backlog.
As for Agent Orange, there are just slightly more than 1,000 such claims in the backlog. All Agent Orange claims, whether new or reopened, and including those involving interim decisions and cases under review based on the new Agent Orange standards — all these taken together amount to less than 0.0022 percent of all claims.
VA data also show that an estimated 11 percent of veterans filing claims for additional disabilities are already rated 100 percent disabled or Individually Unemployable, which carries a 100-percent-disabled rating. This is not to intimate that anything is amiss with such claims, but questions involving complete disability are inherently complicated, requiring sufficient evidence and the time to evaluate it.
Much of the reason for the claims backlog is that there is a lack of medical knowledge among those who file claims and some of those who review them. The process is couched in excruciatingly precise medical, physiological, and anatomical terminology.