Veterans' Disability Benefits:

Challenges to Timely Processing Persist

GAO-13-453T: Published: Mar 13, 2013. Publicly Released: Mar 13, 2013.

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bertonid@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

GAO found a number of factors--both external and internal to VBA--have contributed to the increase in processing times and subsequent growth in the backlog of veterans' disability compensation claims. For example, the number of claims received by VBA has increased as the population of new veterans has swelled in recent years. Moreover, due to new regulations that established eligibility for benefits for new diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, VBA adjudicated 260,000 previously denied and new claims for related impairments. Beyond these external factors, issues with the design and implementation of the program have also contributed to timeliness challenges. For example, the law requires VA to assist veterans in obtaining records that support their claim. However, VBA officials said that delays in obtaining military records--particularly for members of the National Guard and Reserve--and Social Security Administration (SSA) medical records impact VA's duty to assist, possibly delaying a decision on a veteran's disability claim. Further, VBA's paper-based claims processing system involves multiple hand-offs, which can lead to misplaced and lost documents and cause unnecessary delays. Concerning timeliness of appeals, VBA regional offices have in recent years shifted resources away from appeals and towards claims, which has led to lengthy appeals timeframes.

VBA has a number of initiatives underway to improve the timeliness of claims and appeals processing. Such efforts include leveraging VBA staff and contractors to manage workload, modifying and streamlining procedures, improving records acquisition, and redesigning the claims and appeals processes. According to VBA officials, these efforts will help VA process all veterans' claims within VA's stated target goal of 125 days by 2015. However, the extent to which VA is positioned to meet its ambitious processing timeliness goal remains uncertain. VBA provided us with several planning documents, but, at the time of our review, could not provide us with a plan that met established criteria for sound planning, such as articulating performance measures for each initiative, including their intended impact on the claims backlog. GAO has recommended that VBA (1) partner with military officials to reduce timeframes to gather records from National Guard and Reserve sources, (2) work with SSA to reduce timeframes to gather SSA medical records, and (3) develop a robust plan for its improvement initiatives that identifies performance goals that include the impact of individual initiatives on processing timeliness. VA generally agreed with our conclusions and concurred with our recommendations, and identified efforts that it has planned or underway to address them.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony discusses the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) disability benefits program, which provides monetary support to veterans with disabling conditions that were incurred or aggravated during military service. In fiscal year 2013, VA estimates it will provide $59.6 billion in compensation benefits to 3.98 million veterans and their families. For years, the disability claims process has been the subject of concern and attention by VA, Congress, and Veterans Service Organizations (VSO), due in part to long waits for decisions and the large number of pending claims. For example, the average length of time to complete a claim increased from 161 days in fiscal year 2009 to 260 days in fiscal year 2012. Moreover, VA's backlog of claims--defined as claims awaiting a decision for over 125 days--has more than tripled since September 2009. In August 2012, approximately two-thirds of the 568,043 compensation rating claims--which include pension and disability rating claims--were backlogged. In addition, timeliness of appeals processing at VA regional offices has also slowed by 56 percent over the last several years.

This testimony is based on a GAO report released on December 21, 2012, titled Veterans' Disability Benefits: Timely Processing Remains a Daunting Challenge, and, also include information updated to reflect the status of improvement efforts. This testimony focuses on (1) factors that contribute to lengthy disability claims and appeals processing times at VA regional offices and (2) status of the Veterans Benefits Administration's (VBA) recent improvement efforts.

For more information, contact Daniel Bertoni at (202) 512-7215 or bertonid@gao.gov.

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