A top Department of Veterans Affairs official said today that recent reforms have led to dramatic increases in speed and accuracy in processing disability claims, an assertion that was quickly challenged by skeptical congressional overseers and the agency's own numbers.
Allison Hickey, VA's undersecretary for benefits, told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs that the accuracy scores of claims raters has increased four percentage points in the last year.
But the VA's website shows the 86.3 percent accuracy rate has improved only about 1 percentage point from a year ago, and is virtually identical to what it was in 2008.
Hickey told The Washington Examiner in a brief interview after the hearing that she is privy to new and more detailed figures that show the improvements in quality, which will soon be reflected when new data is posted on the agency's official disclosure web site.
Committee members did not buy Hickey's rosy scenario. They responded with a barrage of their own numbers, all of which added up to longer delays for veterans seeking benefits because of service-connected injuries or medical conditions.
"In my mind, the math simply doesn't add up," Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said of Hickey's certainty that VA will meet Secretary Eric Shinseki's pledge to process all disability and pension within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.
"I also question whether VA is being upfront with Congress about its challenges." Michaud is the ranking Democrat on the veterans committee.
Almost 900,000 veterans have claims pending at VA, about 70 percent of which have been stuck in the system more than 125 days. Another 250,000 or so are appealing their initial rating decisions, which adds years to the process.
Veterans waited an average of 94 days for an initial rating decision in 1997, according to figures cited by committee chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. Today, the wait is about 279 days.
Productivity has plummeted, with the average full-time worker processing 136 claims in 1997 but only 73 last year. VA's budget for claims processing has tripled to about $1.75 billion since 1997.
The number of employees doing the work has gone from 5,177 to more than 14,500 in that time.
"VA's disability benefits backlog problem is getting worse, not better, and veterans are suffering as a result," Miller said after the hearing. "When it comes to disability benefits claims processing, VA is losing ground or stagnating in every key measure they've asked that Congress use to evaluate their performance.
"VA has a history of sugar-coating the problems it faces and overstating its ability to solve those problems. Unfortunately, that type of approach doesn't help the department and certainly doesn't help the nearly 900,000 veterans who are waiting for VA to make a decision on their disability benefits claim."
Several committee members grilled Hickey as to whether official speed and accuracy numbers are being manipulated.
Miller asked whether management has directed front-line workers to process simple claims first to make it look like speed is improving.
Diana Rubens, another top official who accompanied Hickey, responded "I believe the answer to that is no."
In fact, older and more complex cases have been prioritized, which tends to increase overall average processing times, Hickey said.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, asked whether regional managers have falsified speed and accuracy data to improve their numbers.
"I'm not aware of any integrity problems in my regional offices," Hickey replied.
Earlier this year, The Washington Examiner published a multi-part series entitled "Making America's Heroes Wait" that exposed ways agency employees manipulate internal data to make it appear more claims are being processed faster and more accurately than is actually the case. That investigation cited multiple inquiries by the VA's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office.
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.