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COVID–19 Pandemic Causes VA Benefits Backlog to Spike

In recent weeks, the VA has been seeing a spike in the backlog for initial claims by veterans amid the pandemic. Up until recently, the backlog had held steady even with the 100% telework posture of the Veterans Benefit Administration.

Claims that officially count as backlogged are those that have yet to be addressed for 125 days or longer. After these claims held steady at 70,000, the number has recently crept over 100,000 claims according to data released last week.

Prior to the pandemic, the steady state of claims represented a victory for those at the agency. Bill Oxford, national commander of the American Legion, said on March 11th that “significant progress has been made at the VBA to reduce the backlog of undecided claims and appeals and the Appeals Modernization Act is already exceeding expectations.” He went on to say that the agency was “confident this will continue as we watch the backlog shrink in the months ahead.” Obviously, amidst the pandemic, these projections changed.

With the transition to 100% telework, backlogged claims increased slowly but steadily and recently spiked on May 16th at 101,456 claims. This spike represented a rather sudden jump in claims, which sat at just over 80,000 on May 2nd, two weeks prior.

According to the president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 940, Jim Rihel, telework is facing strong headwinds. “The networks are garbage, VBMS crashes on a regular and recurring basis,” he said. This can be a huge limitation for those trying to address the claims.

A spokesman from the VA said that they “tested its enterprise-wide virtual private networks and gateways from March 11 through March 17. This testing had minimal impact on VA’s claims processors, and employees who were impacted by the testing worked with their supervisor to mitigate any effect to the employee’s performance standards.”

However, the increase in backlogged claims is not solely due to the network.  In many cases, in-person examinations are required to receive compensation and pensions.  Due to safety concerns, these examinations cannot be conducted.  Many veterans will be forced to wait until it is deemed appropriate and safe to conduct the examinations.

Some officials are worried that the actual numbers are a consequence of the pandemic.  Because veterans cannot get medical appointments, symptoms will likely be exacerbated and as a result, ultimately lead to more claims for increased benefits. As states begin to reopen and examinations become possible, the real number may become clear and some claims may finally be processed.

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