Congress will meet with Veterans Affairs Department officials next week to demand answers on how the agency is handling appeals filed by veterans whose compensation claims were denied. The focus on the Board of Veterans Appeals comes as the VA works at restoring trust to a department seriously shaken by confirmed reports of secret wait lists, systemic manipulation of patient data and instances of veterans dying before getting to see a doctor.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, told Military.com on Friday that the VA's problems go beyond the Veterans Health Administration.
"It is imperative that Americans understand that the culture of corruption within the VA expands far beyond patient wait times and I have serious concerns about the mismanagement in the Board of Veterans Appeals process," he said.
Coffman said the VA needs to "ensure a veteran's appeal claim is processed expeditiously and accurately so they receive the care they need and deserve."
Much of the attention on a disability claims backlog over the past four years has been on first-time applications, which exploded in part because hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans who were able to file for a number of illnesses finally recognized as linked to their service. Additionally, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, when they did file a claim, generally filed for multiple conditions, VA officials have said.
Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki determined early on in his tenure that a claim not acted on within 125 days of being submitted was part of a backlog. As recently as a year ago, the backlog was more than 600,000 claims. The backlog has since dropped to below 300,000 and is on schedule to be eliminated next year.
But appealed claims – those submitted if the initial one was denied or if the veteran sought an increased rating or additional benefit – also grew.
There are now more than 250,000 of those claims before the Board of Appeals. These may take an average of four years to decide, said Glenn Bergmann, a former VA lawyer who now represents veterans seeking compensation from the department.
Some veterans as well as lawmakers have accused the VA of reducing its backlog of initial claims by denying them, getting them off the backlog but forcing the veteran to file an appeal. Some veterans have also slammed the VA's slow processing of and denial of claims as intended to wait for the veteran to die.
Coffman said the Sept. 10 hearing will address those wait time concerns for veterans with a claims appeal.
"The purpose of this hearing is to address problems occurring at VA's Board of Veterans' Appeals ... related to various forms of data manipulation," he said. "It will address the excessive delays in processing claims and the various methods used to shift cases around in order to hide the amount of time cases are sitting without being processed or [adjudicated]."