The Obameter

Reduce the Veterans Benefits Administration claims backlog

"There are currently over 400,000 claims pending within the Veterans Benefits Administration, and over 800,000 claims receipts are expected in 2008 alone. … Obama will hire additional claims workers and convene our nation's leading veterans groups, employees and managers to develop an updated training and management model that will ensure that VA benefit decisions are rated fairly and consistently, and stem from adequate training and accountability for each claims adjudicator."


"Fulfilling a Sacred Trust with our Veterans" (original link)

Subjects: Health Care, Veterans


Veterans claims backlog grew under Obama

Updated: Friday, November 2nd, 2012 | By J.B. Wogan

During the 2008 election, Barack Obama courted veterans as a voting bloc. We've documented 14 campaign promises Obama made to them, from putting more money into U.S. Veterans Affairs to expanding housing vouchers for homeless veterans.

One such pledge was to reduce the benefits claims backlog.

The Veterans Benefits Administration, one of three branches of Veterans Affairs, reviews and grants requests for veterans to receive financial compensation, home loans, college tuition assistance and more through the federal government.

In a campaign document outlining his positions on veterans issues, Obama said he would reduce the backlog by hiring more staff to process benefits requests; he also pledged to convene the nation's veterans groups, employees and managers to improve the training those claims processors receive.

The process of reviewing claims has been the subject of repeated government oversight reports,  which inevitably cite long lag times and avoidable errors in rating claims. (Beyond deciding whether a veteran qualifies for a benefit, the processor must assign a rating that determines how big the benefit would be.)

The backlog refers to benefit requests that go unaddressed by a government office within 125 days. Although the Veterans Benefits Administration oversees an array of benefits, the backlog is shorthand for the bureaucratic bottleneck of claims for disability compensation, pensions and compensation for surviving spouses or children of veterans who die because of their military service.

The backlog nearly doubled from roughly 36 percent in summer 2010 to 65 percent in June 2012. In that sense, Obama has failed. The backlog grew after he took office.

Some context though: In the past four years, Veterans Affairs hired more than 2,500 new staff to rate claims and shortened the average time to process a claim by 16 percent since 2008. The backlog worsened because the expanded staff didn't keep pace with increased demand. A decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, new benefits made available to veterans and more medical conditions per veteran have resulted a dramatic increase in claims. The number of claims jumped from 888,000 in 2008 to 1.4 million in 2011.

Obama also promised improved training for staff that review claims. We found instances in 2010 and 2011 when the Veterans Benefits Administration revised its training program. Staff who received the new training seem to work quicker -- a July report from the administration said students of the new program finished more claims per day -- and with better accuracy -- compared with students of the older training model.

We did not find evidence of Obama convening a formal summit with the leaders of veterans groups to establish a new training and management model. However, the Veterans for Foreign Wars informed us that monthly meetings between the executive directors of six national veterans groups do occur, as do regular meetings between those groups and the under secretary for benefits at Veterans Affairs.

The progress on this promise is a mixed bag. Although he made modest improvements, he failed to keep up with the surge of applications. On the most important measurement of this promise -- the claims backlog -- things are worse. We rate this a Promise Broken.


Email interview with Joshua Taylor, press secretary for Veterans Affairs, Sept. 28, 2012

Email interview with Terry Jemison, public affairs specialist for Veterans Affairs, Sept. 27, 2012

Interview with Gerald Manar, deputy director of the National Veterans Service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Oct. 2, 2012

U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Reclaiming the process: examining the VBA claims transformation plan as a means to effectively serve our veterans, Witness testimony of Gen. Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
June 19, 2012

Veterans Benefits Administration, Impact of VBA's new challenge training program, July 10, 2012

POLITICO, Veterans battle disability-claim backlog, Feb. 23, 2010

Federal News Radio, VA tackles claims backlog with new priority approach, July 11, 2012

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, VA report: new training model yields faster, more accurate claims processing, July 10, 2012

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Strategic plan addendum fiscal year (FY) 2011‑2015, August 2012

The American Legion, VBMS: Silver bullet for claims backlog?, June 19, 2012

Government Accountability Office, Claims processing problems persist and major performance improvements may be difficult, May 26, 2005

Government Accountability Office, Preliminary Findings on Claims Processing Trends and Improvement Efforts, Statement of Daniel Bertoni, Director Education, Workforce, and Income Security, July 29, 2009

Veterans Benefits Administration, Understanding the disability claims process, (accessed Oct. 8, 2012)

Veterans Benefits Administration, VA claims transformation, (accessed Oct. 8, 2012)

The New York Times, Veterans wait for benefits as claims pile up, Sept. 27, 2012

The Bay Citizen, Disabled vets stuck in backlog limbo, accessed Aug. 29, 2012, Fulfilling a sacred trust with our veterans, Reduce the claims backlog

Shinseki says more claims workers will be hired this year

Updated: Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 | By Angie Drobnic Holan

President Obama appointed retired U.S. Army Gen. Eric Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs, and Shinseki was confirmed on Jan. 20, 2009.

He testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Feb. 4 and outlined several initiatives his office was tackling, including reducing the backlog in claims.

"Let me just give you a picture of what the disability claims process looks like," Shinseki said. "If you were to walk into one of our rooms where adjudication or decisions are being made about disability for veterans, you would see individuals sitting at a desk with stacks of paper that go up halfway to the ceiling. And as they finish one pile another pile comes in. There are 11,100 people doing this today for the Veterans Affairs Department, good people. Hard to do this rather challenging job in which they're trying to apply judgment to situations that occurred years ago and, in some cases, situations that they don't have the full appreciation for the context of combat. ... In the last two years we've hired 4,000 additional adjudicators. This year we're hiring another 1,100 to address the backlog problem.

"In my opinion, this is a brute force solution and we need to very quickly take this into an IT format that allows us to do timely, accurate, consistent decisionmaking on behalf of our veterans. And this is part of what the backlog is about," Shinseki said.

Shinseki then discussed in detail the challenges and logistics of improving the VA's electronic records system.

So reducing the claims backlog is on Shinseki's "to do" list, and his plans to hire 1,100 additional workers is enough for us to move the Obameter to In the Works.

Sources:, House Veterans Affairs Committee Holds Hearing to Organize for the 111th Congress and on the State of the Veterans Affairs Department, Feb. 4. 2009

House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Hearing , Feb. 4, 2009

Veterans Affairs, Shinseki biography , accessed Feb. 10, 2009

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