By: Allie Klein

 

In response to increasing public and congressional scrutiny, the VA spent this year addressing the hundreds of thousands of claims that have languished, undecided, for more than 125 days. As the federal government shutdown began, VA officials warned that it would have a catastrophic impact on claims processing. On October 1, 2013, VA Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Tommy Sowers predicted that the VA’s massive backlog of disability compensation claims would grow as a result of the shutdown. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki echoed this pessimistic assessment in his October 9 testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He insisted that shutdown-related furloughing threatened to derail six months of progress against the claims backlog, and could potentially prevent the VA from achieving its goal of eliminating the backlog entirely by the end of 2015.

 

Now that the shutdown has ended, however, the VA’s claims processing statistics suggest that these fears were misplaced. Though the rate at which the VA processed claims slowed, the total number of backlogged claims continued to fall during the two-week shutdown. The 10,000 claim drop from 421,793 on September 28 to 411,704 on October 19 included 900 claims processed during the shutdown.

 

Reactions to these statistics in Washington split along party lines. Ranking committee member Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, released a statement lauding the VA’s performance: “While the impact of the shutdown on the backlog doesn’t appear to be as severe as some had feared, at the very least, it’s comforting to know that the current strategy in place is enough to continue reductions, even without overtime.” In contrast, committee member Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, seized on the incongruence between the predictions and reality. “This drop is stunning in light of the administration’s threats the backlog would increase as a result of a government shutdown,” said Lamborn.

 

Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, pointed his criticisms at the VA’s failure to meet its own internal goal for fiscal year 2013 of reducing the claims backlog by completing 1.27 million claims by September 30. The VA’s end-of-year records show that it fell 100,000 claims short of this benchmark, despite receiving 272,000 less new claims this year than originally forecast. “Instead of debating whether or not VA’s dire predictions regarding the shutdown’s impact came to fruition, I remain focused on a much more important question: Why is the department still falling short of its own backlog goals?” said Miller.

 

As part of the continuing resolution Congress passed to end the shutdown, the VA will receive an additional $300 million to aid its efforts to tackle the backlog. Only time will tell whether the additional influx of cash will be money well spent.

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