Worries that the Department of Veterans Affairs is rigging numbers without fixing problems delaying thousands of disability claims for more than two years were vented today during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
The hearing, titled "Expediting Claims or Exploiting Statistics?" focused on an initiative abruptly announced last month to process disability claims that are more than two years old within 60 days.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman, said he is concerned the plan is as much a public relations ploy as an effort to ensure veterans receive quick and accurate claims ratings.
The initiative does not fix the underlying flaws in the claims processing system that led to long delays in the first place, Miller said. Ultimately, it could force some veterans to wait longer to have their claims processed as they fall lower on the agency's priority list, he said.
"Although this new approach sounds promising, we must monitor it closely to ensure that it is good policy rather than just good public relations," Miller said.
"The VA must not shift resources and manpower away from processing new claims just to clear out older ones. Every veteran deserves a thorough, fair and timely evaluation of their claim, regardless of when it was filed," he added.
The hearing was convened following an April 25, 2013, report by The Washington Examiner on how the plan to expedite old claims could be used to improve agency statistics without permanently resolving veterans' cases.
Several veterans' advocacy groups raised that issue in written statements submitted for Wednesday's hearing, though they did not testify.
Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits at VA, said the expedited processing of the oldest claims has already resulted in almost 35,000 decisions, about half of all claims that were more than two years old. Benefits were approved in about 70 percent of those cases, Hickey said.
Once the two-year-old claims are completed, which should be in about a month, the agency will prioritize the cases that are at least a year old with the goal of having those finished within five months, she said.
Almost 253,000 veterans had claims that were more than a year old, according to agency figures from April.
"Our goal is simple. Give those veterans who have been waiting the longest a quality decision on their claim and if granted start the flow of compensation benefits as quickly as possible," Hickey said.
Concerns about whether VA officials are using the expedited processing to improve the numbers that even they call unacceptable are rooted in how the agency determines when a case is closed.
Two critical statistics for the VA are the number of cases that are considered "backlogged" because they are more than 125 days old, and the average time it takes to rate a disability claim.
About 560,000 cases are currently considered backlogged, about two-thirds of all disability and pension claims.
It takes an average of about 10 months to rate a disability claim. In some regional offices, average waits are longer than a year.
Under the new system, a veteran with a claim that is at least two years old will be granted a "provisional" rating within 60 days. Typically the claim will be rated based on documents already in the claims file, though there are provisions to require gathering certain documents like medical records.
Once the provisional rating is issued, the claim will be considered "closed" for VA's statistical purposes, meaning the case that is years old will no longer be considered on the books or part of the backlog.
If a veteran submits new evidence, challenges the provisional decision or asks for a higher rating, that will be treated as a new case.
"Although clearing and entering end products in this manner will ultimately make the statistics on the backlog look better, they do not get to the heart of the matter, which is how VA plans to improve its workload management processing time in the future," Miller said.
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.