The good news is that veterans are making more claims than ever before, as they learn of new eligibility under burn pit legislation and more. The bad news is that there’s not enough staff to handle the deluge in claims, even as the Veterans Affairs has added more employees. And that’s a recipe for burnout.
“I am concerned about ensuring we take care of our employees, because when we take care of them, they can take care of veterans,” said VA Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs at a press conference on April 27. “So we are actively looking at making sure we are providing the support our employees need.”
The backlog of benefits claims has been a major focus of the department and members of Congress for years, amid concerns that too many unprocessed cases could undermine faith in VA’s system as individuals are forced to wait months or years for payouts.
Last year, the Veterans Benefits Administration processed about 1.7 million claims from veterans, its highest total ever. Jacobs said they expect to set a new record this year, in large part due to expansion of benefits under the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act) signed into law last summer.
Already, 500,000 individuals have filed paperwork for PACT Act compensation for illnesses tied to burn pit exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan, Agent Orange conditions from service in Vietnam, and issues related to radiation exposure at various military sites in the 1970s and 1980s.
Jacobs said VA staff have processed about 14% more claims through mid-April than compared to the same time frame last year, with roughly the same approval rates. But new claims this year are up 31% over the same time frame last year, meaning staff isn’t keeping up with the demand.
VA officials insisted the heavier caseload is a positive sign, because it means more veterans are reaching out to the department for earned benefits. But they acknowledged it increases the need for new staff hires and faster training.
The department currently employs 28,000 claims staffers, its largest total ever, and up more than 1,100 in recent months because of aggressive hiring initiatives, Jacobs said. He added that recent improvements in the claims process such as automating some processing and clarifying approval rules have also helped workers improve efficiency and helped boost morale.
In addition, the department is sending out new surveys to veterans starting this week to gauge their satisfaction with the claims process, in an effort to make sure the changes and challenges aren’t adding stress to disabled veterans. The 13-question survey will look at veterans’ trust in the process, use of support services and other issues related to the claims.
“We’re going to take that to drive specific improvements to the overall process,” Jacobs said.
Those surveys should reach veterans by email in coming days, department officials said.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.