The Department of Veteran Affairs Faces an Uphill Battle to Address its Claims Backlogs

There is no denying that the disability claims process is complex; however, the Department of Veteran Affairs is facing added pressure due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The current backlog is quickly approaching 200,000 claims, it is expected that this number will grow to somewhere in the range of 225,000 to 240,000 pending claims by this summer. 

“Not all the challenges we face are related to the pandemic,” Thomas Murphy, Veteran Benefits Administration’s (VBA) acting undersecretary for benefits, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “Under a recent court order, VBA must re-adjudicate over 62,000 Blue Water Navy claims. These claims were added to the inventory in April. In addition, we’re about to begin processing claims for the three new Agent Orange presumptive conditions mandated by Congress of bladder cancer, Parkinsonism and hypothyroidism. We’ve seen a slow decrease in the backlog over the last couple of months, but these new issues and a continued rollover of claims currently in inventory, will see a short-term spike in the backlog this summer.”

If all goes well, the disability claims backlog should drop to 140,000 by the end of this fiscal year and return to pre-pandemic levels of about 100,000 by the end of 2022, Murphy said.

Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee stated, “I’m concerned, however, that next year isn’t soon enough for disabled veterans weathering the storm of this pandemic. I’m also concerned that as VBA concentrates on speed, it risks sacrificing quality. Disabled veterans must have confidence that their claims will be fairly and accurately decided.”

Murphy reported the VBA is trying to scan and digitize more veterans records, which helped the department address veterans’ claims with slightly more speed.

The pandemic created a real issue within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which stores military records at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. The aforementioned records are vital in order for veterans to begin the disability claim process and the NARA was forced to close its facilities due to pandemic.

“We got to the point where we were right around 100,000 [records requests],” said Murphy, who sent VBA officials to the NPRC to determine what VA could do to help.

The VA is working with the NARA to additional employee shifts on nights and weekends so it could process more records requests. COVID relief funds received by the VA will be used in part to compensate employees for the extra hours. 

As of April 11, NARA had a working inventory of 8,700 military records requests, which Murphy said falls within the agency’s pre-pandemic levels. NARA today can turn documents around within a few days’ time, he added.

“At the same time, we know that NARA is sitting on several hundred-thousand records requests that come through other sources, but we’ve been prioritized because we’re taking care of veterans,” Murphy said. There is nothing easy about the disability claims process and it has only been made more difficult in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  While the VBA and NARA are attempting to facilitate the backlog of claims, it is critical that veterans seek professional assistance in filing claims whether that is through an attorney or a veteran organization.  Professional assistance ensures that veterans are receiving the level of care that they deserve in recognition of their service to their country.