Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Va Workers Take Aim at Own Agency for Benefits Backlog

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Va Workers Take Aim at Own Agency for Benefits Backlog

Article excerpt

To hear wounded veterans tell it, there are few things more daunting, infuriating or soul-crushing than dealing with the Veterans Benefits Administration, the agency that decides whether they will receive disability benefits for injuries and illnesses incurred during war.

As the inventory of unprocessed claims has grown -- to more than 900,000 nationwide -- so has anger with the agency. On Tuesday, in what has become an annual ritual, Congress will hold hearings on the VBA's chronically poor performance.

But in one small pocket of the sprawling benefits agency, a branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs, front-line workers are taking the unusual step of going public about the dysfunction within their own bureaucracy, making common cause with some of their loudest critics.

On Saturday, workers from the benefits agency's regional office in Columbia, S.C., planned to picket outside their workplace, hoping to spotlight what they consider root causes of their system's breakdown: lack of accountability, inadequate resources, hopelessly complex policies and demoralizing work conditions.

"We want to take care of veterans; many of us are veterans," said Ronald Robinson, a protest leader, president of the union local and an Army veteran. "We can't sit any longer and be blamed for things that are beyond our control."

The backlog in the disability compensation system has steadily worsened since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, having more than doubled in that decade. The department defines its backlog as claims that have been awaiting decisions for more than 125 days, the department's benchmark for timeliness.

Almost no regional office has been immune from problems, with the Oakland, Calif., office now sending new claims to other offices because its inventory has grown so large. Yet even the Columbia office, considered by some veterans advocates to be relatively good, had a backlog of about 15,000 claims last month, and did not accurately process one out of three claims last year, according to a report by the department's inspector general.

Leaders of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the protesters in Columbia agree on some of the causes of the backlog: a flood of claims by recent Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans as well as aging Vietnam veterans seeking compensation for old injuries or Agent Orange-related illnesses; a weak economy; and the growing complexity and number of injuries and diseases now recognized as service- related.

But on the issue of how to fix the problem, the two sides sharply diverge. Veterans Affairs asserts that its efforts to digitize records, update computer software, hire 4,000 workers, extend overtime to process claims and make changes intended to speed claims processing will begin shrinking inventory by next year.

In a statement, the VA said those initiatives had put it on track to process all claims in less than 125 days by 2015. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.