VA ‘At a Tipping Point’ as Claims Backlog Begins to Shrink, Senate Panel is Told

WASHINGTON, June 12 – Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) welcomed assurances today that the Department of Veterans Affairs has made “significant progress” and is “at a tipping point” in reducing a massive backlog of claims for disability benefits.

The assurances came from Thomas Murphy, the VA’s director of compensation services during testimony before Sanders’ committee. Murphy said the backlog is shrinking and on track to meet VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s goal of processing all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by the end of 2015. “I honestly believe we’re going to hit that number,” Murphy said.

Murphy was responding to a question by Sanders about his legislation to require public reports on VA’s progress toward reducing the backlog. Sanders welcomed the news and applauded Shinseki for setting a “very ambitious goal.”

There are some 851,000 veterans awaiting answers on compensation claims for illnesses or injuries incurred during their service. Two-thirds of the claims have been waiting more than 125 days for an answer, but that number has begun in recent weeks to decline. Sanders called the claims backlog one of the major issues at the VA.

In the nine weeks since the end of March, VA’s disability claims backlog has experienced a steady decrease.  The turnaround is thanks in large part to an initiative by Shinseki to transform the VA’s records from cumbersome paperwork process to digital documents that speed the claims handling process. Sanders congratulated Shinseki for undertaking the transition to digital records that his predecessors had neglected. 

While the caseload decline is encouraging, Sanders said there is still much to be done so that VA can meet its goal of eliminating the claims backlog. 

Sanders’ legislation would provide long-term reforms that would improve VA’s claims process from start to finish – from the regional offices to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

The bill also would enable Congress to conduct more comprehensive oversight of VA’s progress and transformation by requiring VA to publicly report, on a quarterly basis, information on both VA’s quarterly goals and actual production.