The Backlog. The backlog of pending claims for veterans' disability benefits has become the bogeyman that haunts the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Over the past several years VA exerted substantial efforts to exorcise this demon at the initial filing stage. In other words, VA focused its attention, with mixed results, on shortening the time it takes for vets to receive an initial decision on their claims. Recently, however, VA has shifted its focus to the appeals process. With good reason. According to VA, in 2015 more than 417,000 appeals were pending before the agency, and the average appeal was pending more than three years when a decision was finally issued. The numbers only get worse when VA isolates that appeals that made it to the Board of Veterans Appeals. There, the average cumulative wait time for a decision by the Board was more than five years.
MARCH 23 GAO REPORT
On March 23 the Government Accountability Office ("GAO") issued a report entitled VA DISABILITY BENEFITS Additional Planning Would Enhance Efforts to Improve the Timeliness of Appeals Decisions addressing VA's efforts to reform the appeals process. The report, which focuses primarily upon proposed reforms at the Board of Veterans Appeals, offers mixed grades. It recognizes the positive efforts that have been made by VA, and appear to agree that the agency has identified the correct areas that require focus. However, the GAO takes issue with VA's efforts to implement those changes, and notes that the failure of VA to adhere to best practices puts veterans at risk.
KEY REFORMS: STAFFING, PROCESS, AND TECHNOLOGY
VA has identified three key areas that it believes are critical to eliminating the backlog at the appellate level. First, the agency plans to continue the hiring surge it started last years. Second, VA states that it plans to streamline the appellate process, principally by limiting the opportunities for veterans to submit new evidence while claims are at the appellate level. Third, VA plans to replace the outdated IT system that the Board has relied upon since the 1990's.
IDEAS VERSUS IMPLEMENTATION
As state above, the GAO does not take issue VA's assessment of the three key areas that need to be addressed. However, in its report the GAO notes that the manner in which VA plans to implement its proposed changes is problematic. For example, although the GAO recognizes that VA is short-staffed, it takes VA to task for failing to adequately plan for providing office space and appropriate training for the new employees it plans to hire.
The report addresses each of VA's three focus areas. With respect to changing the appellate process, the GAO applauds VA's efforts to work with VSOs to ensure that changes are fair to veterans. However, the watchdog agency points out that VA has failed to adequately plan an implementation strategy that accounts for possible problems that might crop up. In particular, it takes serious issue with VA's desire to implement the new appellate program without first conducting pilot testing. This friction point is significant enough that the GAO has recommended that Congress weigh in on the matter. Finally, the GAO is concerned that VA has failed to adequately establish time tables for the implementation of the proposed new IT system.
At the end of the day, the GAO and VA -- and almost everyone else concerned -- agree that the appellate process needs to be reformed. The GAO report, however, raises concerns over whether VA is adhering to best practices, and if not, whether the proposed changes will do more good or more harm to veterans.