New VA Secretary Must Deal With Health Care Wait Times And Claims Backlog

The Department of Veterans Affairs has a new leader. In July, the U.S. Senate confirmed Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary after the previous secretary resigned amid reports of mismanagement and manipulation of wait times at VA hospitals. The new secretary must deal with the problems exposed by those reports as well as a years-long problem of wait times for VA claims.

In this article, Midwest Disability will explain what these problems are and what the government is doing about them. Backlogs for disability claims and waits for health care affect many veterans. These veterans often are already dealing with other challenging administrative and legal issues, including Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.

Wait Times For VA Health Care

Veterans who served in active military service and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable are usually eligible for a wide range of VA health care services. Members of the Reserves or National Guard who were called to active duty may also be eligible for these benefits.

During summer 2014, reports emerged of wait times that were so long at one VA facility that patients died before ever seeing a doctor. According to news reports, a whistleblower in Phoenix alleged that up to 40 veterans had died after waits of up to 21 months for VA hospital care. The whistleblower said that schedulers made wait-time data appear better than it was, which allowed hospital executives to receive bonuses. Other whistleblowers also came forward to report long waits.

The whistleblower's report spurred three investigations. A report from the VA Inspector General found systemic misconduct throughout the VA.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki ultimately resigned. Around the time that the Senate approved McDonald as Shinseki's successor, Congress announced a deal aimed at addressing the crisis in care. The plan costs $17 billion, including $10 billion to allow veterans to be treated outside the VA system if they have trouble getting appointments, according to National Public Radio. More than two dozen additional clinics are planned, and $5 billion is planned for new doctors and medical personnel.

The bill is aimed at dealing with the immediate care problems the VA faces. But the VA also struggles with long waits for claims for VA disability benefits.

Long Waits Persist For Compensation Claims

In addition to its health services, the VA provides disability compensation benefits to veterans who become disabled as a result of their active military service. Veterans who apply for compensation are assigned a rating from 10 percent to 100 percent disabled. Compensation is based on these ratings.

In recent years, concerns have grown about the number of backlogged claims. A claim is considered backlogged when it has been in the system for more than 125 days. New claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and new rules that allow more Agent Orange claims contributed to the backlog. In March 2013, the VA said its backlog had reached a tipping point.

The VA said it would work to eliminate backlogged claims by 2015. It authorized overtime, trained more employees and prioritized the oldest cases, among other changes. News reports show that in July 2014, the VA said its backlogged claims had dropped from 611,000 in March 2013 to 274,000. But some veterans groups have said that speed came at a price. An American Legion official told a congressional hearing that his group had found errors in 55 percent of cases it reviewed. The VA said more recently that its accuracy rate was 91 percent.

In addition, some have accused the VA of overstating its progress. A recent Stars and Stripes report said that the VA reduced some of the backlog by improperly removing old cases. According to the publication, more than 7,800 unresolved benefit claims were removed from the backlog after the VA issued a preliminary decision based on incomplete or old information in a claims file. An assistant VA inspector general told a congressional hearing that the method overstated the VA's progress.

Challenges For The VA Are Challenges For Veterans

These are two major challenges that the new VA secretary must deal with as the agency struggles to provide veterans with the care and services they deserve. Unfortunately, they are also major challenges for the veterans who need the services.