It has been a frustrating semester for veterans trying to get their education benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Still waiting on checks from August, September, October and now November,” one man wrote in a comment on the VA’s Facebook page for beneficiaries of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. “What do you expect people to do? How do you expect people to survive?”
That complaint has been festering for months, even as the VA struggled to resolve another problem: the disability-claims backlog that emerged as a national scandal last year. As it happens, the two issues are related. As the longstanding deadline for resolving the disability-claims backlog approached, Veterans Benefits Administration officials shifted manpower from the education claims to the disability crisis — thereby making progress on one logjam by creating another.
In July, a VA spokesman acknowledged that the department was going to miss the September 30, 2015, deadline for clearing the disability-claims backlog that had been set in 2013. Officials now hope to solve the problem by the end of 2015.
At about the same time, the VA implemented a new policy of allowing very little overtime for processing education-benefits claims. “From June 1, 2015, to September 4, 2015, overtime expenditure was 87.2 percent lower than the same period of the prior fiscal year, resulting in 143,341 fewer claims being processed during overtime,” VA spokesman Steve Westerfeld writes in an e-mail to National Review.
The effect of that decision was apparent almost immediately, according to the benefits data released by the VA on a weekly basis and reviewed by NR. The number of pending education claims rose from 55,763 on May 30 to a high of 194,472 as of September 5. Over the same period, the number of backlogged disabilities claims (that is, claims that had gone unaddressed for 125 days or more) fell from 140,703 to 91,764.
“They were taking people and resources away from the education backlog and putting it towards the disability backlog,” says Dan Caldwell, legislative director for Concerned Veterans for America. “The only reason they’ve been able to get the backlog down is through overwhelming use of overtime and sheer manpower, not really solving the core problems that led to the backlog to begin with.”
#share#Westerfeld defends the decision as an appropriate tactic for reducing the disability backlog from a high of approximately 611,000 claims in March 2013 to its current level. “Each year the [Veterans Benefits Administration] formulates a budget request with workload levels deemed necessary to meet our mission on multiple levels and within that budget fine-tunes the allocation of resources for processing different types of claims as needs arise,” he tells NR.
Veterans’ groups have sympathy for that explanation; they’d have more if the VA had communicated it to the students who were waiting for benefits. “It would have been a pretty big win for the VA to say, ‘Look, we only have a finite amount of resources given to us by the Congress . . . and with that what we decided to do was tackle the backlog in health which we felt was pressing due to the fact that it was people’s lives and as a result we had to make some hard decisions,’” says Will Hubbard, vice president of government affairs at Student Veterans of America.
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Instead, the VA’s communications with beneficiaries emphasized mundane factors for delays, such as a student transferring to a different school. “Ultimately, the core challenge remains VA’s reliance on overtime hours for full-time employees during the peak periods of fall and spring enrollment,” SVA acting president and CEO Jared Lyon told the Veterans’ Advisory Committee on Education last month. The data bears out his point: In the month after the VA returned to approving overtime for employees working to process education claims, the number of applications waiting for a decision dropped by about 60,000.
The congressional Republicans tasked with overseeing the VA are less forgiving than some activists. “This is yet another example of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s inability to walk and chew gum at the same time,” House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller (R., Fla.) says in a statement to NR. “Veterans receive GI Bill benefits because they earned them, and it’s incumbent upon VA to process those claims fairly, accurately and in a timely fashion. The fact that VA is under pressure to eliminate its disability benefits compensation claims backlog must not interfere with this concept.”