Hearing Cites VA's Accomplishments, Shortfalls
By Ashleigh Bryant
Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs W. Scott Gould
Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs W. Scott Gould testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Sept. 20, bringing to light many of the department’s major accomplishments, while Committee members brought focus to areas where the department appears to still be falling short. At the accountability hearing, the Committee addressed concerns about the state of VA mental health care, the suicide crisis plaguing the veteran and military communities and the process of hiring more mental health professionals to treat patients.
“Data continues to show that 18 veterans per day commit suicide, and five of those were receiving VA care at the time of death,” said Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). “As of mid-July, VA had hired less than 900 employees as part of this effort, and there seems to be confusion among officials as to what the goal is and when it will be reached. I have grave concerns about access to VA mental health care, which is clearly in crisis.”
Gould testified that the department is working diligently to hire 1,600 additional mental health care professionals by the end of the year, a goal set by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
“We are today hiring 75 individuals per week, and we are on track to meet our goal for hiring these individuals by the end of the year,” said Gould. He went on to hail the success of the Veterans Crisis Line suicide prevention efforts, which has processed more than 650,000 calls and rescued 23,000 from potential suicide.
Miller, who participated in a DAV virtual town hall meeting (see page 20) with veterans the day prior to the hearing, also cited concerns expressed to him by veterans about the claims backlog. He questioned the attainability of the VA’s goal of having no claims pending more than 125 days and a two percent error rate by 2015. Miller said today’s current backlog snapshot, with 67 percent of claims waiting longer than 125 days and an error rate of 30 percent, makes it look like the VA is “slipping” on the path to meet its goals.
Though the VA is expecting to process 1.2 million claims this year, new claims continue to outpace those completed. More than 900,000 claims are still pending with nearly 600,000 on hold for more than 125 days. Gould told Committee members the 50-percent growth in claims since 2008 as well as the 330-percent growth in complexity and components of those claims are a consequence of expanding benefits access to veterans with claims for Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder and Gulf War illnesses. This was, he explained, the right decision by the VA which subsequently increased the backlog.
“In 2009 we processed 997,000 claims, we got a million. In 2010 we processed a million claims for the first time in the department’s history, we got 1.2 million. And in 2011, we processed a million again, and we got 1.3 million,” said Gould. “I am pleased to announce this year we will also hit a million claims. This places us at the beginning of a three-year run to end the backlog.”
Gould thanked Congress for support of the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) technology currently in pilot stage at four Veterans Benefits Administration offices, aimed at bringing these numbers down.
“Our technology initiatives aim to improve access and increase efficiency, with goals to contribute to an additional 15 to 20 percent increase in productivity and a 4 to 6 percent improvement in claims quality,” said Gould.
DAV has championed claims reform to a modern, paperless system designed to get claims right the first time, but has testified that the VBMS needs improvements to move a greater impact on the backlog.
“Our NSOs are still not able to access the VBMS system at any of those pilot sites on behalf of the veterans we represent because VBA fails to recognize the power of attorney our NSOs hold,” said National Service Director Garry Augustine. “This hurts the veterans and our ability to produce better claims, which would ultimately reduce VBA’s workload and enhance efficiency.”
The VA estimates that with the current number of claims pending, workload capability and the projected increase in claims in the next three years, the department will need to process 4.7 million claims to reach its 2015 goal.