This week, VA reduced the disability claims backlog to 98,535. This is the lowest it has ever been in VA’s history, and it represents an 84-percent reduction from its peak of 611,000 claims in March 2013.
But this milestone is also personal. I am a Veteran, my husband is a Veteran, and I have countless friends and family members who are Veterans. I came to the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) four years ago knowing there was no more noble mission than to care for Veterans, Servicemembers, their families and Survivors.
On day one, I knew that demand for compensation and other VA benefits was exploding. The backlog of claims older than 125 days was over half a million and climbing, and the claims inventory was nearly 800,000 and rising. You were waiting too long for your disability claim decisions, and that wasn’t right.
In 2009, VA set a goal to process claims in an average of 125 days. Shortly after my arrival at VBA in 2011, we set in motion the Transformation Plan – a series of people, process, and technology initiatives that, when integrated, would bring the backlog down. Today’s numbers are a reflection of the success of this plan.
It hasn’t only been personal to me. It’s been personal to all VBA employees – 53 percent of whom are Veterans themselves and many more are family members of Veterans—and to Veterans Health Administration physicians and staff and IT colleagues who have gone above and beyond to provide you with the medical examinations needed to support your claims.
It was through the efforts of these employees, our team members and partners that we were able to achieve such a dramatic reduction in the backlog, without sacrificing quality: claims-based quality has risen from 83 percent at the start of transformation to 91 percent today – and holding strong – and on the eight separate quality categories measured within a claim, employees are making the correct decision more than 98% of the time. With the help of the Congress, our partners in Veterans Service Organizations state and county Veterans service departments, and the support of our Labor partners:
- We are on track to complete nearly 1.4 million claims this fiscal year – exceeding 1 million claims for the fifth year in a row, and setting a new historical record.
- We’re expediting your claims – thanks to you and our VSO partners, nearly half of the claims we receive are Fully Developed Claims – and today, Veterans with a pending claim have been waiting, on average, 105 days for a claim decision, 177 days less than the March 2013 peak of 282 days.
- We’ve completed nearly 75 percent more non-rating work than before transformation – and we’ve already completed more non-rating work this year than we did in all of last year. Most non-rating claims are filed after receiving a rating claim decision that opened access to other VA benefits and services, such as adding dependents.
- Our appeals rate has remained in the historical average range of 10 to 12 percent amidst our increased production – volume went up, because we decided more claims. When you work a record-setting number of claims, volume goes up. There are only two ways to best tackle appeals – legislative reform or more full-time employees authorized by Congress.
As you can see, many people had a hand in personally helping VA reach this backlog milestone. But I know it’s most personal to each and every one of you.
We (VA) changed for you.
We streamlined our processes; we moved out of antiquated systems; we got away from thousands of tons of paper; we met you online so that you could access us wherever and whenever you needed; and many of you changed right along with us. You’ve embraced new things like filing Fully Developed Claims and using standardized forms. Your teamwork with us as we implemented these changes was significant, and we thank you for doing your part in making VA better for every Veteran.
For the fastest processing, your evidence should be submitted as early as possible in the claims process, but we will always consider additional evidence or new medical conditions you add—no matter how late in the claims process you add that material. We take seriously our legal duty to assist you in fully developing your claim, but there are some instances where your personal circumstances – and our legal duty to assist you – may cause it to take more than 125 days to process your claim:
- If you add a new disability to a claim you already submitted to us or submit new, additional evidence for an already submitted claim
- If you are unable to make scheduled medical exams for personal reasons, such as travel, living overseas, medical issues, etc.
- If VA identifies additional disabilities while we are processing your claim that are related to your service-connected disabilities that you did not claim
- If VA identifies additional entitlements, such as adapted housing benefits or additional monetary benefits if you are unable to achieve employment as a result of severe service-connected disabilities, we will still complete your claim but these entitlements may take longer than 125 days.
We anticipate that these categories will only account for approximately 10 percent of all claims we receive – the vast majority of your claims will be decided in 125 days. These situations do not mean we will stop striving to give you the best possible service, or that we no longer need your support.
Far from it!
As we mark this important milestone in our history, we commit to you that we will continue our efforts to improve; we will never waiver in our dedication to providing the best possible service to you, your families, and your Survivors. With our success in reducing the backlog through transformation, we have called on our VSO partners and the Congress to support us in ensuring we continue to receive the resources and legislative authorities we need to build upon our improvements – especially for non-rating and appeals work. I need you to echo that call.
We are not done. We will continue to work tirelessly on your behalf. Above all, I thank you for your service to our country – for you are our inspiration every day.
Allison Hickey serves as VA’s Under Secretary for Benefits in the Department of Veterans Affairs leading more than 20,000 employees in the Veterans Benefits Administration delivering of a wide range of integrated programs of non-medical benefits and service to more than 12 million Veterans, Servicemembers, their families and Survivors. Under Secretary Hickey served 27 years in the United States Air Force on Active Duty, in the Air National Guard, and in the Air Force Reserve, retiring with the rank of Brigadier General as the Director of the Air Force’s Future Total Force office at the Pentagon. She is also a 1980 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the first class to include women.