Gregg Zoroya in an article which ran in the USA Today Newspaper on April 6, 2011 wrote about the VA backlog of claims increasing tremendously from 200,000 to a whopping 450,000 from 2009. He said in the article, that VA had expected an increase in claims and hired an additional 3000 employees, which brought the total number of VA employees to 14,000. However as we can see from the numbers, these new hires had very little if any, effect on preventing the backlog in claims from growing over twice the size of the original backlog. VA defines the backlog as claims that take over an average of 125 days to complete. This vast increase in pending claims has brought the total number of claims pending, with the VA, from 448,000 to 756,000. According to the writer, VA officials have blamed this humongous increase in the VA claims backlog on inexperienced employees, increase in new claims due to the poor economy and more complex issues in claims related to Agent Orange exposure.
I am not here to disagree with any of these reasons VA officials have given for this overwhelming increase in the backlog of pending claims. Certainly, there are inexperienced employees, some of the claims are indeed very complex, and there has most definitely been an increase in new claims. However, these are not the only problems that have prevented VA from processing its workload of claims timely and accurately. There are other more serious problems which continue to hinder VA’s ability to process claims timely. One of these major problems is the structural model that is being used.
The Department of Veterans Affairs led by Secretary Eric Shineski is divided into three major branches: The Veterans Health Administration (VHA), The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and the National Cemetery. Each of these branches has its own undersecretary and hierarchy of leaders, which create a very cumbersome system with over inflated administrative costs to the American taxpayers. Within VBA alone, there are 57 Regional Offices which must be staffed with a Director, Assistant Director, Service Center Manager and Assistant Service Center Manager, Supervisors, and then the employees who actually work on processing the claims.
VHA and VBA work together in the processing of the veterans’ claims. The medical examinations required in the processing of these claims are completed at the VHA and the VBA employees are responsible for doing the remainder of the work. A merger between VHA and VBA will result in a significant reduction of administrative costs and a great savings to both the taxpayers and the VA as a whole. If employees who process the veterans’ claims are housed within each VA hospital, there wouldn’t be need for 57 additional VBA Regional Offices and the administrators necessary to operate them. In New York for instance, the VA pays rent to the General Administrative Services (GSA) while there is ample space in several VA hospitals that is capable of accommodating VA claims processing staff. VA could use some of the savings in administrative costs to hire additional employees to process the claims.
Let’s face it we are in an economic devastating period. It is highly unlikely that congress is going to appropriate additional funding for VA to address the overwhelming accumulation of claims. The people that are most adversely affected by the inability to timely process these claims are the veterans who, in many cases are severely ill and cannot work. These veterans depend entirely on their VA Compensation and Pension benefits for their survival. They have done so much for our country. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice and as a country we owe it to them to ensure that their dependents are taken care of.
In thinking about solutions and new ideas to increase the timeliness in the processing of our veterans claims, it is imperative that we employ creative thinking. No idea should be left unexplored. A merger between VHA and VBA will not only reduce administrative costs to VA, which will free up more funds to be spent on employing claims processing workers, it will make the VA more accessible to veterans. For instance, the New York Regional Office, which is located in downtown Manhattan serves veterans who live as far as Albany, New York. It is a severe hardship for older veterans and serious ill veterans who live in Albany to come into the Regional Office to have their business taken care of. In many cases, veterans would like to come into the Regional Office to submit evidence which could help in expediting their claims. Those that live hundreds of miles away may find it difficult to do so and their only option is to send the documents through the mail, which takes a much longer time and often documents go missing.
Secretary Eric Shineski and his team of senior level administrators must deal with the reality of the situation at hand. They are faced with an overwhelming amount of claims to process and a country where the taxpayers are crying out for being overburdened already. The current model to operate VHA and VBA independent of each other has become too costly and is adversely affecting the needs of our veterans. It is time for VA to become more effective and efficient in servicing our veterans.
Gregg Zoroya’s Article: http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2011-04-07-1Abacklog07_ST_N.htm