On the surface, President Barack Obama's promise to reduce the backlog in claims to the Veterans Benefits Administration appears a separate issue from the scandal that rocked the Veterans Affairs Department this summer.
The backlog refers to the number of claims — for disability compensation or pensions, or for compensation for veterans' surviving spouses and children — that have gone unanswered for more than 125 days. It's a long-standing problem that Obama promised to address during his 2008 campaign.
Meanwhile, the controversy that erupted this year started with a Phoenix VA office falsifying wait-time data to see a doctor. It turned out to be a system-wide problem in which VA employees lied about how quickly they saw patients to take advantage of a program that incentivized VA hospitals if they scheduled a primary care appointment within 14 days. The actual wait time at the Phoenix facility was 115 days.
While separate issues, the Phoenix scandal has shaken faith in the VA system and has left many wondering, veterans groups included, whether to trust other government data when it comes to veterans.
Here's what we know right now.
At the end of 2008, there were about 389,000 pending pension and compensation claims. About 87,000 had been pending for longer than 180 days (the benchmark was changed to 125 days during Obama's first term). In the years that followed, a decade of war ended and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returned home. Additionally, some veterans who experienced complications from Agent Orange were now eligible for benefits. As a result, claims skyrocketed; 1.4 million claims were submitted in 2011 alone.
This flurry of new claims increased the backlog considerably. At the end of Obama's first year in office, there were 481,000 pending claims, of which 176,627, or 36.7 percent, were pending for more than 125 days and thus were considered part of the backlog.
Those numbers shot up as more claims were submitted. The backlog high came in March 2013 when 611,000 of the 884,000 claims were pending for longer than 125 days. It has since come down considerably. As of Nov. 8, about 240,000 of the 526,000 claims, or 46 percent, have been pending for longer than 125 days.
That number is still higher than what it was during Obama's first year in office, though it's down since the peak in 2013. The percentage of cases that have been pending longer than 125 days is also higher than it was in 2008, but again, it's an improvement from the worst of it.
So there's reason to believe things are heading in the right direction. However, veterans groups are concerned that the emphasis is on speed and not accuracy.
While the VA claims 95 percent of the claims are handled accurately, Zachary Hearn of the American Legion told Congress in December that 55 percent of cases they reviewed had errors. For example, Hearn noted that a regional office in Nashville had a 95 percent accuracy rating, but their own experts found errors in seven of 22 claims they reviewed.
"Our review paints a far dimmer picture of Nashville's accuracy than indicated in the Monday Morning Workload Report (from the Veterans Affairs Department)," Hearn said.
Hearn told the Washington Post in April that those concerns with accuracy still existed. Those complaints sound reminiscent of problems the VA experienced in Phoenix and elsewhere with wait times.
We'll be closely monitoring the numbers, and the result of new initiatives to better track and verify data reported by the various VA regional offices.
There are plenty of circumstances that explain the surge in new claims under this administration and the growth in the backlog. Significant progress has been demonstrated since claims hit their peak, and at the current pace it seems reasonable to believe that the administration will reach its goal of reducing the backlog before Obama leaves office.
However, right now the numbers say that the backlog remains higher than what it was during Obama's first year in office. That being the case, we're keeping this at Promise Broken.