VA Disability Claim Backlog Will Grow More Before It ShrinksThursday, May 20, 2021
Even prior to the pandemic, the complex process that is a VA disability claim had led to a growing backlog of claims. COVID-19 has served to exacerbate this issue and has placed constraints on the already intricate process.
Currently, there are 191,700 disability claims in the VA’s backlogs. This number is expected to peak sometime this summer at around 230,000 claims. Yet, it should be noted that some officials do not blame the rapid rise in claims solely on constraints related to the pandemic.
Thomas Murphy, the VBA’s acting Under Secretary for Benefits, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that “Under a recent court order, VBA must re-adjudicate over 62,000 Blue Water Navy claims.” These claims were added to the inventory in April. “In addition, we’re about to begin processing claims for the three new Agent Orange presumptive conditions mandated by Congress – bladder cancer, Parkinson’s and hypothyroidism. We’ve seen a slow decrease in the backlog over the last couple of months, but these new issues and a continued rollover of claims currently in inventory, will see a short-term spike in the backlog this summer.”
According to Murphy, if the VBA’s plans to deal with these claims goes smoothly, the backlog should drop to 140,000 by the end of the fiscal year and return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022.
Murphy’s optimistic sentiment about the situation is not shared by all. Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, is worried that the end of next year is not soon enough for disabled veterans to weather the storm of the pandemic. He said, “I’m also concerned that as the VBA concentrates on speed, it risks sacrificing quality. Disabled veterans must have confidence that their claims will be fairly and accurately decided.”
Murphy is also a big advocate for the digitization of veterans’ records, arguing that it will help the department address claims more quickly. Record digitization also may have prevented some of the delays that happened because of the pandemic. The National Archives and Records Administration, which stores military records in St. Louis, Missouri, was forced to close its facilities during the pandemic. Veterans need access to these records to begin the VA disability claim process.
Another contributing factor to the growing backlog is congress’ skepticism of using contractors for compensation and pension exams, which are used to determine a veteran’s benefits eligibility. Contractors make up almost 90% of the C&P exams today and they are an integral part to the department’s plans to work through the backlog.
The Government Accountability Office has suggested that the VA didn’t have an adequate system in place to ensure that their vendors have completed their training. Elizabeth Curda, Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues at the GAO said that “…what concerns us is that as of this year to date, the contractors are now performing 90% of exams, and a lot of medical examiners we spoke to weren’t aware that the capacity was shifting to mostly contractors.”
Yet, the VBA says that it has three layers of quality checks to ensure contractors’ C&P exams are up to par.