Paralyzed Veterans of America is calling on Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs to refocus efforts and resources to the disability appeals process, which rose to more than 900 days on average last year.
The VA’s recent annual performance report shows that the average time for a denied claim to be processed through the appeals system rose to 923 days in fiscal 2013, an increase of 37 percent over the previous year, McClatchyDC reports.
The average wait time for an appeal has hovered between 500 and 750 days for roughly the past decade. The 2013 performance report outlines a short-term goal of reducing appeals wait times to 650 days and a long-term goal of 400 days.
“Since 2009, the public and Congress’s demand for greater timeliness and efficiency on the front end of the claims process has eclipsed the growing problem on the back end – the increasing number of backlogged appeals,” said Sherman Gillums, Jr., associate executive director of veterans benefits for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “This problem was not exactly unforeseeable, as historically a steady proportion of VA decisions do not get resolved, thus requiring appellate action for final resolution.”
Under pressure from Congress, the public and veterans groups, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has ramped up its productivity in order to eliminate by 2015 a backlog of nearly 400,000 claims pending for more than 125 days. Efforts to reduce the overall backlog – including the recent provisional rating pilot program that expedites claims that have idled in the system for two years or more – have resulted in an increased caseload of appeals for the Board of Veterans Appeals, Gillums said.
“The problem is the VBA took measures to adjust its capacity to meet the demand through technology and reallocation of human resources, while the Board moved much slower, perhaps due to a lack of external pressure to adapt,” Gillums said.
The VA contends that the long processing time for appeals is not a result of inactivity, but rather the many layers built into the system. The department said it is continuing to look for ways to make the appeals process more efficient.
Still, while the VA’s intense focus on eliminating the claims backlog has contributed to the surge in appeals, Gillums stressed that the surge is not entirely attributed to resources being diverted from the appeals board to VBA.
“VBA and the Board are separate entities with their own staffing structure and processes with some shared resources,” he said. “But the Board leadership bears as much responsibility for devising strategies and tackling the appeals backlog as the leadership at VBA.”
Learn more about our Veterans Benefits Department
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.