Veteran disability claims are taking longer and longer to process, says GAO


The processing time of veterans' disability claims at the Veterans Benefits Administration has lengthened 61 percent as the VBA struggles under the weight of increasing claims, says the Government Accountability Office. The GAO says internal and external issues at the Veterans Affairs Department may prevent it from meeting a 2015 goal of processing claims within 125 days.

In a report (.pdf) dated Dec. 21 but not published until Jan. 18, GAO says that the VA is seeing yearly increases in the number of disability claims and projects 1 million new veterans in the next 5 years, which may overwhelm advancements like moving claims to an electronic process.

Despite new systems, GAO says every aspect of the process is taking longer at VA and that this may continue to be the trend.

Total processing time has increased from 161 days in 2009 to 260 days in 2012, but the report specifically calls out the evidence gathering phase which took 157 days in fiscal 2011 and "continues to worsen in 2012."

The agency has also admitted previously that it has had difficulty getting its paperless system working properly.

The report says that the VA "fell sort of established criteria for sound planning" in its backlog reduction strategy and "risks spending limited resources on initiatives that may not speed up disability claims and appeals processes."

Beyond a general increase in claims, the report says VA also faces a higher number of claims with disabling conditions, complex assessment conditions like traumatic brain injuries, and a one-time increase of 260,000 previously denied claims related to Agent Orange.

To avoid wait times for veterans extending months or years, the GAO recommends VA develop a new strategy focused on agency partnerships and new digital initiatives. The agency should develop a procedure to obtain, verify and share service records with the National Guard and Reserve and medical records with the Social Security Administration.

In response, the VA largely agrees with the GAO's recommendations and says it is currently developing pilot programs to work with SSA and the National Guard.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-89 (.pdf)
- see VA's announcement of its paperless records system

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