VA Official Assures Skeptical Senators That Pace, Quality of Agency Work Has Improved
Northville, MI (Law Firm Newswire) January 24, 2014 – Allison A. Hickey, the Under Secretary for Benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), has testified that benefits processing has improved at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).
On December 11, 2013, Hickey, spelled out the progress she claims the VBA has made. She led those claims with the assertion that the VBA had reduced its backlog of claims by 36 percent since March. However, Hickey’s upbeat pronouncements did not impress some members of the less-than-credulous Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The VA has accumulated a backlog of 400,000 benefits claims, and that fact certainly hung over the Senate proceedings. Hickey admitted that her agency had significant ground to reclaim, but she also averred that the backlog would dwindle through 2014 — and is on track to disappear by 2015.
“We know there is much more work to be done to reach our goal of eliminating the disability claims backlog in 2015,” Hickey said. “But I’m encouraged that the improved tools and processes we’ve put in place so far are having a real impact, so that we may better serve our nation’s veterans, their survivors and their families.”
The “tools and processes” to which Hickey referred are some of the elements of the VBA’s transformation plan. Those measures include blueprints for retraining and reorganizing the agency’s workforce, for adopting more efficient business methods and for instituting new online technologies.
Hickey stated that the reforms will soon translate into a system less reliant on paper and more capable of shepherding claims smoothly and quickly. She also pointed to a number of VA achievements during her testimony. She emphasized that the backlog of claims pending for more than 125 days has fallen by 36 percent since March and noted:
o A 22 percent drop in the pending inventory of claims
o An increase in claim-level accuracy (from 83 percent in 2011 to 90 percent today)
o An increase in medical-issue-level accuracy (to almost 97 percent today)
o The complete processing of 99.9 percent of all claims that had been pending for more than two years
o The complete processing of 97 percent of all claims that had been pending for more than one year through October 31st, 2013
o The digitalized formatting of more than 360 million paper claim images for electronic processing
o The establishment of more than 3.2 million veteran, service member and family member accounts in eBenefits, the Defense Department/VA gateway for monitoring VA benefits.
Despite the Under Secretary’s glowing account of the VA’s accomplishments, several senators were unmoved, including the committee chairman, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Sanders criticized the VA’s dismal record on processing appeals, which has average wait times of 866 days. Sanders demanded a report from the VA on the ways in which the agency is improving its appeals process.
In addition, some senators disputed the 90 percent claim-level accuracy rate Hickey cited, with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., saying that an American Legion review pegged the rate at 55 percent.
Hickey stood behind her agency’s figures. “Senator Burr, it is an apples and oranges discussion,” Hickey said. “There is a very different way others look at the issue than we do. They are right for the way they look at it and we are right for the way we measure it.”
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