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Monday, Dec 22, 2014
Commentary

Veterans Affairs numbers game undermine confidence

BY DARIN SELNICK
Special to The Tampa Tribune

Published:

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has in recent months been claiming a dramatic improvement in service to veterans through faster processing of disability and compensation benefits. But can we trust the department’s reporting?

Unfortunately, the VA leadership has developed a bad habit of serving up questionable claims and misleading information to defend the department’s failings. That bad habit has undermined confidence in the VA among veterans and their advocates.

A case in point: For the past several months, VA officials have boasted of the department’s progress at whittling down the backlog of veterans benefits, which peaked earlier this year at more than 608,000 backlogged claims (that is, claims that have awaited processing for more than 125 days).

With the help of a mandatory overtime surge, under which VA claims processors worked an extra 20 hours per month, the VA reportedly trimmed the backlog to just over 414,000 claims by mid-October.

Good news, right? Not so fast. A recent accounting by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs revealed there may be less to that “progress” than meets the eye. In fact, the reduction in the claims backlog has been almost entirely a result of a dramatic drop in new claims being filed, rather than a result of improved performance by the department.

Let’s take a closer look at the hard numbers, according to the House VA Committee. For fiscal year 2013, which ended September 30, the VA projected the completion of 1,269,063 claims. In reality, the VA completed 1,169,085 claims — nearly 100,000 fewer than projected. In the meantime, the VA intake of new claims was almost 272,500 fewer than projected. That means that even with the tremendous infusion of new funding and the unprecedented overtime push, the VA still fell short of its own goals, even with fewer new claims entering the system.

Of course, we can predict what the VA’s defenders will say: “Why criticize when the VA has processed more claims this year than ever before, and when the backlog is shrinking?” The problem is that the VA is claiming improved performance and service when no such improvement is taking place. Which means that should there be a future surge of claims, the VA will still be mired in the same dysfunction as before — and we’ll find ourselves with yet another mountain of backlogged claims.

In fact, that may already be happening. According to a Sept. 19 report in The Washington Post, the number of veterans submitting appeals for denied claims has skyrocketed. This may be because the VA is pulling workers off appeals to work on new claims; or it may be because in its haste to tackle the backlog, the VA is forcing more errors; or it could be a mix of both. But it will be a worrisome development if the VA’s storied effort to reduce the backlog simply shifts waiting veterans into a different line.

Missed performance targets and shifting the backlog around also call into question the substantial increase in funding that the VA has received. In the past five years, the VA has enjoyed a budget increase of some 40 percent; meanwhile, in the deal to end the partial government shutdown in October, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saw to it that the department was awarded yet another $300 million to expedite processing.

It’s doubtful that throwing more money at the problem is going to make a difference at this point if the VA’s dysfunctional bureaucratic culture continues to resist change. The VA is desperately in need of comprehensive, top-to-bottom reform to transform the department into a customer-service oriented agency dedicated to serving veterans.

That’s how the VA can win back the trust and confidence of veterans, Congress and the taxpayers — not by misleading claims and political spin about the department’s performance. Which means it’s more important than ever that veterans, veterans’ advocacy groups and policymakers don’t take the VA’s reporting at face value.

We need continued pressure on the VA to force the needed reforms to make the department more accountable and responsive to veterans’ needs. If the VA’s latest sales push manages to take the momentum out of that reform push, it will be a truly sorry outcome for veterans.

Darin Selnick, a U.S. Air Force veteran, is an independent consultant and a member of the Concerned Veterans for America’s organizing committee. He served as special assistant to the secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2001-2009.

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