By Debbie Gregory.
Although the National Work Queue initiative is reducing the claims backlog and improving processing wait times, the Department of Veterans Affairs is warning that this progress may be hindered by the backlog of veterans seeking to appeal decisions involving disability benefits.
Whether the VA will receive the additional funds remains in question due to a tightening Trump administration budget.
Without the additional staff, the VA said, the backlog could exceed 1 million within a decade, and “veterans may have to wait an average of 8.5 years” to have their appeals resolved.
The department provides disability compensation payments each year to about 4.1 million veterans with disabling conditions incurred during their military service.
In order to meet the goal of deciding most of the appeals within one year by 2021, the VA set aside additional money in 2017 to add 242 full-time staff members. It now seems that a surge of up to 1,458 more staff would be necessary in 2018.
President Trump’s proposed budget calls for a 6 percent increase in VA funding. The funds are mostly earmarked to pay for rising health costs to treat veterans. But the White House plan has yet to spell out specific funding for hiring of more VA staff to handle both disability claims and appeals.
VA Secretary David Shulkin has called the current system “broken.” He has backed legislation introduced last year aimed at streamlining the appeals process, but has been less clear about available money for hiring.
Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee was among a group of senators, including Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who re-introduced legislation to overhaul the disability appeals system.
In the GAO report, auditors as a whole found the VA’s staffing estimates sound but cautioned the government’s second largest agency needed a better plan to make sure additional staff are properly trained and have adequate office space.
VA officials said they had been devoting additional staff in recent years to address the appeals backlog but that broader reform from Congress, including added staffing, was urgently needed.