WASHINGTON — The processing time for disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs worsened in a majority of its regional offices last year, including the Puget Sound, and the VA has struggled with its plan to correct problems, according to two recent audits and a McClatchy Newspapers review of department data.
The result for veterans is longer waits – often for disability decisions that are incorrect.
The declining performance came in a year the VA was working to boost its performance, hoping to meet long-standing goals to decide veterans’ claims faster and more accurately. Office by office, the department is switching to a new processing system designed to eliminate paper records, curtail shuffling of files and speed decision-making. The VA plans to move all offices to the new system by the end of the year.
In recent months, however, performance has been slipping.
One of the worst declines took place at the Puget Sound VA. The average processing time for compensation claims climbed from 213 days in January 2012 to 325 days in December.
The average wait for a pending claim at the Seattle office now sits at 337.6 days, up from 285 days a year earlier.
Chris Barrows of Olympia is one of the veterans caught in the slow grind. He served in the Army in the early 1990s and received disability compensation through the VA until 2008, when the VA learned of a criminal complaint filed by his ex-wife stemming from an outburst in Michigan.
Barrows did not know about the complaint at the time, and did not learn of it until the VA informed him that it was suspending his benefits because he was considered a “felony fugitive.” Barrows did not hurt anyone in the incident.
Barrows, 41, resolved the complaint, but he’s still outside the system. He reapplied for benefits last year and received letters advising him of delays.
He has since lost his home to foreclosure. His second wife moved out with his kids, citing Barrows’ volatile personality that seemed to worsen after he worked in Iraq and Afghanistan as a private security contractor.
“I fear for my safety and that of my children,” she wrote in court filings.
Barrows is finally getting treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that seemed to grow more serious for him after his private security assignments. He said he considered suicide in May, and police came to his house to intervene.
Barrows recently packed up his Olympia home and picked up supplies he’d need to live on the streets. He keeps his records in a folder labeled “VA Mess.” He doesn’t see a way out of his predicament and doesn’t want to stay with friends.
“I have a lot of issues. I don’t need anyone else dealing with me,” he told The News Tribune.
Beyond the systemic delays, two recent audits call into question the VA’s ability to transform as planned.
The department’s inspector general, in a report dated last month, said it was too early to know whether the new system would help the VA reach its goals.
The problems “have made the claims process more difficult, rather than improving efficiency as intended,” the report concluded. Users found that documents sometimes took three or four minutes to open. The system repeatedly crashed, and one VA worker told the inspector general it took two hours to process a key part of a claim – twice as long as in the old system.
The Government Accountability Office, which functions as Congress’ investigative arm, said the VA is proceeding without a clear, comprehensive plan.
It concluded: “This may, in turn, result in forcing veterans to continue to wait months and even years to receive compensation for injuries incurred during their service to the country.”
In response to both reports, the VA said much of the criticism was outdated and that the phase-in of its new system allows the department to correct problems along the way. The department said it’s optimistic about hitting its speed and accuracy goals by 2015.
1 MILLION-PLUS CLAIMS
The VA’s disability benefits are awarded to veterans who suffer physical or mental injuries during their military service. They range from $129 a month to $2,816 a month for a single veteran.
The VA has tried for years to reduce the waiting times, even as both younger and older veterans have sent claims skyrocketing to more than 1 million a year.
According to a McClatchy review of department data, the performance at regional offices deteriorated throughout 2012. The department’s long-term goals are that no disability claim is pending more than 125 days and that errors occur in just 2 percent of claims.
Nationwide, the percentage of cases held up more than 125 days increased – from 66 percent to 69 percent. The error rate went down slightly, from 15 percent to 14 percent.
In the Puget Sound area, the trend was more positive but still well short of goal – 125-day pending cases decreased from 74 percent to 73 percent, and the error rate declined from 13 percent to 11 percent.
The nation’s worst regional office for accuracy was Baltimore, which at the end of the year had a 26 percent error rate. The regional office that came closest to the VA’s goal was Lincoln, Neb., with an error rate of 4 percent.
VA: FIX ON THE WAY
In a recent interview, the VA said its ongoing transformation should eliminate many of the delays and errors that veterans face.
Beth McCoy, who oversees 14 regional offices in the center of the country, said one part of the new system would allow a VA worker processing a claim to see all of the necessary information on one computer dashboard rather than toggling among eight or 10 screens.
Another aspect of the reorganization involves routing certain types of claims into specialized “lanes” to move them through with dedicated reviewers.
Finally, the new paperless claims system will allow regional offices to share information quickly with other offices or VA medical centers.
The first regional offices experimented with the new system in 2010 and 2011, and by the end of 2012, 18 offices were on it. By the end of this year, all 56 regional offices are expected to be using the new system.
Regional offices that switched over the earliest basically served as guinea pigs.
While the GAO report said some of the VA’s processing problems were outside its control, some stem from staff shortages or inefficiency:
• A huge increase in Agent Orange claims sapped many regional offices.
• Nearly 2,000 new workers have been hired since 2009, and about 50 percent of claims-processing staffers are on their current jobs less than two years, meaning they are not yet fully proficient.
• Collecting medical and other records from the Department of Defense – particularly for National Guard and Reserve members – is a “systemwide challenge.”
• The paper-based claims processing system involves multiple handoffs, which may lead to misplaced and lost documents.
• The lack of an integrated system requires staff to enter claim information multiple times and search through multiple systems for claim information.
The VA said in a statement that the new system is “constantly evolving to meet end-user needs, business requirements and performance benchmarks.”
One version was released on Dec. 3, for example, but prompted concerns about its performance. Those concerns were addressed in a software patch two weeks later, and an updated version of the program deployed in late January “contained no critical defects,” the VA said.News Tribune staff writer Adam Ashton contributed to this report.