The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says it’s making progress in reducing its disability claims backlog. Unfortunately, the thousands of disabled veterans waiting for VA benefits are not feeling the effects as quickly as they would like.

Over a million disability claims pour into the VA every year. They’re coming, not only from veterans home from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also from Vietnam-era veterans who are fighting for the long overdue recognition of diseases related to their exposure to Agent Orange. Currently, 870,000 disabled veterans nationwide are caught in the backlog. The VA, no doubt, is tackling an enormous challenge.

The Flooded VA Disability Benefits System

An American Forces press release stated that in 2009, around 900,000 claims decisions were made while another 1 million new claims flooded in. In 2010, 1 million claims decisions were made as 1.2 million more claims poured in. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said, “Last year we produced another 1 million claims decisions and got 1.3 million claims in. So the backlog isn’t static. The backlog is a bigger number than we would like, but it is not the same number as three years ago.”

VA regional offices are swimming in paperwork. One of the worst is the Oakland office in the San Francisco Bay area, where the average wait time is 313 days.

However, Shinseki remains confident that all 56 regional offices across the country will reduce wait times to 125 days by 2015. “Our intent is to have no claim over 125 days. And every claims decision that we put out the door [will be] at a 98-percent quality mark.”

The How Behind the Backlog Reduction

The VA is implementing a new automated tool expected to improve speed and accuracy of claims decisions. It’s called the Veterans Benefit Management System. Shinseki says this technology will help the VA “approach the tipping point in ending the backlog in disability claims.” It is still at the testing stage but should be fully implemented by the end of 2013.

Shinseki also intends to improve the VA application process itself, and the VA’s role as advocate to veterans. This seems noble, as veterans often feel frustrated with a perceived lack of support from the VA. The idea behind the effort is “to reduce procedural delays” and “focus on getting the bugs out of the claims process before increasing automation.”

But veterans need benefits and medical care now, like former Marine Ian Rodriguez from San Bruno, California. In a New York Times interview he said it took 403 days to get an initial rating of 30 percent and $389 a month for PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), which he says isn’t enough. He believes he deserves more. “If they upgraded my claim, I would be able to go to group therapy every day, and I hope I would get better.” For now, he waits.

Note: All representation coordinated by Alpha is provided by our employees, the Advocates, who are accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). No private organization that trains and employs accredited agents has been legally recognized by the VA for the purposes of preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims. This work must be done by the Advocates themselves and not organizations.