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VA and disability: The backlog is cleared! Long live the backlog!

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been spending so much time and energy on clearing the backlog of applications for disability benefits, critics say, that appeals are piling up at an alarming rate.

According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, more than 10,000 veterans in New York City are waiting for their disability benefits application to be processed. As of December 2012, half of them had been waiting more than a year. On average, the application takes 642 days to process; an appeal takes more than twice as long. And while they wait for benefits decisions, the city's veterans are running out of time, patience and money.

Both the Obama administration and Congress have urged the VA to clear up the backlog of applications, and the VA has responded by authorizing overtime and moving claims that had been pending for more than a year to the front of the line. What critics say is that regional offices have pulled workers from appeals cases to address the backlog of initial claims. The VA responds that, while diverting resources is tempting, agency leadership advises regional offices against it; that's what the overtime was for.

Whatever the reason, the appeals backlog is growing. At the moment, there are 256,061 appeals in the works, and more are on the way -- which makes sense, really, when you consider that more applications are being processed. Eligibility decisions regarding Agent Orange and Gulf War illness have guaranteed more applications for the short-term.

The VA says it processed more than 1 million applications in 2012, just as it did in 2011 and 2010. Historically, 10 percent of claimants challenge their initial disability rating, so that adds 100,000 appeals to the pile every year.

The numbers can tell us the extent of the backlog, but they cannot explain it. We'll do our best to do that in our next post.

Sources: 

The Washington Post, "Veterans face another backlog as a quarter-million appeal disability claims," Steve Vogel, Sep. 10, 2013

Center for Investigative Reporting, "Map: Where is the veterans' backlog the worst?" updated Sep. 7, 2013; accessed at CIRonline.org on Sep. 13, 2013

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, "Performance and Accountability Report," Nov. 2012, accessed online Sep. 13, 2013

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