More than 2,100 Florida veterans who waited more than two years on the Department of Veterans Affairs to make a decision about their compensation claims have now received a decision, the VA announced Friday. The decisions came as part of a national effort to clear up a backlog of more than 65,000 such claims, according to the VA.
The VA, in a news release Friday afternoon, said that since launching an initiative in April, 97 percent of those waiting two years or longer for a decision on whether they will get compensation benefits have received a decision.
The St. Petersburg VA Regional Office will now join in VA efforts to complete the disability claims of veterans who have been waiting more than one year for a decision, while completing the final batch of oldest claims in progress, according to the release.
The office has been the subject of complaints by veterans, some of whom have waited more than 560 days for a decision.
Weeks before the VA announced its initiative in April, The Tribune obtained documents compiled by the St. Petersburg regional office that showed nearly 70 percent of veterans seeking compensation through that office wait at least 125 days for a rating, a formula that determines how much compensation they receive.
The VA considers claims requests older than 125 days to be backlogged. As of the end of 2012, there were nearly 50,000 pending claims, nearly half older than 215 days. And there were more than 7,500 veterans who had been waiting a year to 569 days to receive their benefit ratings. In March, the Tribune wrote about a retired Green Beret who waited 1,000 days, including more than a year with the St. Petersburg Regional Office, for his compensation benefits, which were not approved until after a call from the newspaper.
In its statement Friday, the VA said it completed 2,126 claims for veterans in Florida who had been waiting more than two years for a decision. In addition, "the employees of the St. Petersburg Regional Office also played a significant role in completing veterans' oldest claims from across the nation, including 943 claims for Veterans in the State of Washington."
The VA said in its statement that some two-year-old claims are outstanding due to "unique circumstances, such as the unavailability of a claimant for a needed medical exam, military service, vacation, or travel overseas."
Since April, "the VA has been dedicated to providing earned benefits to the veterans who have waited the longest," Kerrie Witty, the St. Petersburg Regional Office Director, said in the VA statement. "I'm proud of our employees, who have been working long hours on this effort.
"We're now focusing on eliminating the claims that are more than one year old," Witty said. "We've made great progress, but know much work remains to be done to eliminate the backlog in 2015."
The VA, which has faced withering criticism over the backlog issue from veterans, Congress and the public, says ending the backlog of cases older than two years is part of the "overall transformation plan to end the disability claims backlog by the end of 2015 and process claims within 125 days at 98 percent accuracy." In its most recent report, the VA said that there are more than 800,000 claims pending, of which about 524,000 are backlogged at least 125 days.
In April, the Tribune reported that according to its own records, the St. Petersburg Regional Office said that by "September, the St. Petersburg office is supposed to process 65,463 claims, about half of those older than 125 days."
"Based on current resources," the office "will not meet ... production goals for FY 13 based on current resources," according to the St. Petersburg office report to the Southern Area Director. "To meet the goals will require $2.4 million more in overtime funds through September, which is in addition to more than $400,000 in overtime since January, the documents said.
In May, VA announced that it was mandating overtime for claims processors in its 56 regional benefits offices "to increase production of compensations claims decisions, which will continue through the end of September," the VA stated. "Today, VA has the lowest number of claims in its inventory since August 2011 and has reduced the number of claims in the VA backlog - claims pending over 125 days - by 10 percent since the initiative began."
A spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg Regional Office did not return a phone call and email requests for information about how many claims more than 125 days old still exist at the office or how many of the claim requests were approved. A spokeswoman from the union representing workers at the office did not return a phone call or an email seeking comment.
The VA said that under its initiative, claims raters "may make final or provisional decisions on the oldest claims in the inventory, which will allow veterans to begin collecting compensation benefits more quickly,"
If eligible, "veterans are able to submit additional evidence for consideration a full year after the provisional rating before VA issues a final decision," the VA said in its statement. "If no further evidence is received within that year," veterans will be informed that their ratings are final and they will be provided information on the standard appeals process. If a veteran disagrees with a final decision and chooses to appeal, the appeal is entered into the appellate processing system, and is not reflected in the claims inventory.
Homeless Veterans, those experiencing extreme financial hardship, the terminally ill, former Prisoners of War, Medal of Honor recipients, and Veterans filing Fully Developed Claims have priority, according to to VA.