Veterans Appeals Delayed Years – Whistleblower Suggests Leadership IssuesBy Sandra Basu, US Medicine, The Voice of Federal Medicine
News | October 2014
WASHINGTON — A VA whistleblower told lawmakers last month that veterans’ cases waited hundreds of days for a final decision at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, even though some of them required nothing but a signature to be completed.
“Most of the cases involved decisions on appeals of waiting veterans that already had been prepared by board attorneys,” VA Board of Veterans’ Appeals (VBA) Senior Counsel Kelli Kordich told lawmakers in written testimony last month.
Lawmakers were flabbergasted by the delays, with Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) incredulous that someone might be waiting more than 600 days for his or her disability claims case to be resolved in the appeals process.
“I have to go home and look at one my colleagues who served in Vietnam … did that for our country and they are waiting for somebody to take … their pen and sign a chart?” Roe asked.
Kordich agreed that cases shouldn’t take “200 days or 606 days,” to complete, suggesting there was a leadership problem at the BVA.
Kordich made her accusations at a hearing held last month by the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee, where Laura Eskenazi, VBA Executive in Charge/Vice Chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, also testified.
The purpose of the BVA is to review benefit claims determinations made by local VA offices and issue decision on appeals, with nearly all of the appeals arising out of claims for disability compensation that were decided by the Veterans Benefits Administration. In FY 2013, approximately 10% of initial VBA claims decisions were appealed, and 4.5% of these appeals continued through all the initial appeals processes and were certified and transferred to the Board for adjudication, according to Eskenazi’s testimony.
Kordich testified that former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was notified of the delays in a 2012 union letter. She charged that this led to BVA manipulating the board’s electronic record system to hide these delays, which had the effect of “resetting the calculation of how many days the appeal had languished in one location.”
Kordich also maintained that the “board has had a problem with a culture of fear and intimidation for a long time. Attorneys are afraid to express their views.” In response to the problems Kordich raised, Eskenazi told lawmakers that BVA has taken measures to address the delay problems raised in 2012. She said that one of the delayed cases cited had some “errors in the draft decision” that inhibited her ability to move quickly on it.
She further said in written testimony that BVA is “continuing to seek and implement innovative ways to improve business processes through a variety of pilot programs and technological advancements. In the past 18 months, the board underwent an unprecedented period of growth in staff size, having hired approximately 200 new staff during that timeframe.”
She acknowledged, however, that veterans are waiting too long for a final decision.
“We are thankful for the work of Congress and other stakeholders, including the veterans service organizations, to explore long-term solutions to provide veterans with a timely appeals process that they deserve,” she told lawmakers.
Lawmakers said they were worried that an appeals crisis was looming at VA. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) recounted how, at a town hall meeting, a veteran had told him Congress had done great work on addressing the processing of first-time disability claims, but that he had an appeal that hadn’t been touched for two years.
“I don’t think we realized the crisis that was developing in the appeals process,” O’Rourke said.
Disabled American Veterans National Director Joe Violante said in written testimony that the “single most important action that the Veterans Benefits Administration can take to address the backlog of pending appeals is to complete its transformation and reform of the claims process.”
“Quite simply, VBA must perfect a system based on the premise of getting each claim decision right the first time,” Violante explained. “As the error rate goes down and as confidence in the claims process increases, the percentage of claimants who go on to become appellants is expected to decrease. However, as VBA increases its productive capacity, the number of completed claims increases. So, there may still be an overall increase in the number of appeals, even if the accuracy rate continues to climb, because correct decisions can be appealed when they are unfavorable to the claimant.”