Department of Veterans Affairs officials have poured more than $1 billion into a system meant to speed up the processing of veterans' benefits claims, only to see the backlog of such claims climb significantly higher.
But VA officials have attempted to downplay the problem by manipulating data in the agency's benefits office, creating the perception that the backlog is lower than it actually is.
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said Tuesday during a hearing on the matter that the VA refused to count appeals as part of its backlog of claims. Instead, the agency only looked at a veteran's initial claim when tallying the backlog.
In fact, the VA had not even enabled its expensive and incomplete digital system to handle appeals, disability claims or pension applications, masking the true number of veterans waiting to hear back from the VA on some administrative aspect of their care.
Miller noted the backlog of benefits appeals had grown from 250,000 in April 2013 to 433,000 at the start of this year, although he said the VA does not count those appeals as part of its official backlog.
"As of January 1, 2016, there were over 360,000 disability claims pending, over 75,000 of which were pending more than 125 days, which is what VA defines as the 'backlog,'" Miller said.
The Florida Republican said the massive backlog has climbed despite increased funding and a surge of new staff dedicated to processing the appeals. Between 2007 and 2014, the VA added 7,300 full-time employees to its benefits office.
While the cost of the digital management system has doubled from the VA's initial projections, the system is still not finished, the committee noted.
The VA had asked for $580 million in September 2009 to complete the project; Congress has so far allocated $1.3 billion for the system, with no guarantee that the price will not continue to balloon down the road.
The VA had vowed to eliminate its benefits backlog by the end of 2015.
Brent Arronte, an official in the VA's Office of Inspector General, testified that the VA was able to argue it had shrunk its backlog in part because officials changed the way they counted how many claims were waiting to be processed.
The hearing came on the heels of the agency watchdog's discovery that 41,900 mail packages containing veterans' benefits claims were stacked, unopened and gathering dust, in a storage room at the St. Petersburg, Fla., VA office.
Although the VA was paying a contractor to scan hard copies of benefits claims into the system within five days of a veteran mailing them in, the average claim sat for at least 30 days before it was even scanned, let alone addressed, by the VA.
Another inspector general report made public Friday indicated the VA's regional office in Oakland, Calif., also struggled to keep track of its benefits claims.
The watchdog found 537 informal claims that were stored "improperly," as well as potentially thousands more that were seemingly lost.
"[B]ecause of [the VA regional office] management's poor recordkeeping, we could not verify or locate the [the VA regional office]'s original document count of 13,184 unprocessed informal claims," the inspector general wrote.