The VA attempted to solve the problem by hiring more claims workers to handle the influx, but it takes approximately two years to fully train a claims worker to handle the complex process.
"Thousands of new PTSD and Agent Orange claims starting in 2010 overwhelmed an agency with a history of poor planning, chronic understaffing, and a lack of training," said Glenn R. Bergmann, a partner at Bergmann & Moore, a former VA litigator who represents veterans with VA disability-claim appeals.
The Scope of the Problem
In his first years in office, Obama's VA was a disaster, as a flood of new claims overwhelmed an antiquated process for handling them. In 2009, there were about 423,000 claims at the VA, and the official backlog of claims that had been pending for more than four months sat near 150,470. By 2012, claims had exploded to more than 883,000—and 586,540 of those sat in the agency's backlog list.
But in recent years, the administration has made progress in getting veterans more timely answers. The backlog list was cut to more than 300,000 as of May 10. If the VA maintains the current average monthly rate, the backlog could be cut by mid-2015. That would meet Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki's 2010 pledge to eliminate the backlog by the end of next year.
Critics, however, say the shrinking backlog is something of a farce, the result of an administrative maneuver that has not delivered results for the veterans in the backlog, but has instead moved them into a different waiting line. When taking into consideration all VA claims, including those were the veterans died waiting for a decision, those stuck in appeals, and award adjustments—often adding a spouse or child—the VA's inventory of claims is much higher still hovering just under a whopping 1.3 million. (By comparison when Obama took office in January 2009, the inventory of claims was about half that amount: 631,000.)
As of May 10, the VA's number of appealed claims stood at 274,660, almost 100,000 more than the 174,891 appeals in late 2009. Between 2012 and 2013 the number of claims that ended up in appeal grew 5 percent, and between the end of 2013 and March 31 the number of appeals kept rising 2.7 percent. Once in the appeals process, veterans can wait in limbo for an average of two and a half years.
Critics contend that list is growing because, as the agency endeavored to quickly work through the claims, it has made more errors. The VA rejects that charge, and says it accurately processes 91 percent of all claims.
But the Office of the Inspector General for the Veterans Affairs Department has issued several reports since 2009 that say VA regional offices where claims are processed need to improve policy guidance, oversight, management, training, and supervisory review to improve the timeliness and accuracy of disability claims processing.