Claims Backlog Improves

April 10, 2015

The VA claims backlog fell to 194,000, a 68 percent reduction from two years ago. In 2013, the VA amassed over 611,000 disability claims. Quality of claims decisions has increased from 83 percent in 2011 to 91 percent today.

The VA defines the backlog as initial claims that have waited at least 125 days for a decision.  

Last year, the VA processed over 1.3 million claims, an increase of 150,000 over 2013. Even as demand continues to rise — measured in the number and complexity of claims filed — progress toward eliminating the backlog by the end of the year appears to be within reach.

The progress is a result of a comprehensive, integrated strategy for improving the claims management system. The strategy focuses on making correct decisions up front. Leading the transformation is the conversion of an antiquated paper-intensive management system to a paperless environment called the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS). Most claims are now scanned into VBMS, with only 24,000 paper claims remaining in the system.

Better training of disability raters and the use of online guidelines also has resulted in greater consistency in decisions.

However, sustaining the momentum might be difficult. The VA has relied on mandatory overtime for claims workers to reduce the backlog. MOAA calls on the VA to develop a long-term manpower and administrative requirement plan. Delivering this plan to Congress will ensure the claims system can keep pace with the demand over the next decade as veterans from the nation’s longest sustained conflicts enter the VA system.

A related challenge is the backlog of appealed claims. When an initial claim is denied, veterans have the right to appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals. These claims take on average 1,000 days — almost three years — to adjudicate.

MOAA and several service groups have endorsed the concept of a “fully developed appeal,” similar to the fully developed claim process that has measurably accelerated the initial claims process. In a fully developed appeal, a veteran could waive certain procedural steps in order to fast-track a final decision by the board. At any time in the process, the veteran could opt back into the traditional appeals process.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to direct the VA to carry out a five-year program to provide an alternative process to determine appeals for disability claims more quickly.

It’s too soon to tell whether the VA will eliminate the initial claims backlog this year. As progress on this elusive goal continues, MOAA is pleased to see Miller and O’Rourke are leading creative efforts to reduce the appealed claims backlog.