The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said Friday he wants stricter performance reviews for workers processing veterans benefits claims, with the threat of discipline and even termination hanging over those who are too slow or make too many mistakes.
By Rep. Jeff Miller’s estimates, the more people the Veterans Affairs Department hires to process claims, the worse the department performs. In 1997, the average field officer processed 138 claims a year. In 2011, with three times as many overall employees, the average field officer processed 73 claims a year, said Miller, a Florida Republican.
“As the bureaucracy has grown, the output has decreased,” he said. “We are going to keep going at this until they understand the American people are tired of excuses and want to see something happen.”
VA currently has a mountain of about 900,000 pending claims, 70 percent of them older than 125 days. VA officials will appear before Miller’s committee on Wednesday to talk about their goal of eliminating the claims backlog by the end of 2015, using a strategy that involves a combination of electronic claims processing, new procedures for separating claims by complexity, and standardized questionnaires for specific disabilities to move claims more quickly and accurately.
Miller said he does not discount the importance of these improvements. “That is only part of the solution,” he said. “It has to happen, but if you still have bad inputs, bad attitudes and bad performance, you are going to have longer delays. If people are not going to do their job, they need to be fired, not transferred, which is still what occurs. There are a lot of people out there who are looking for work who would be honored to be dealing with veterans.”
While some supervisors may worry about a backlash from taking personnel action against an employee, Miller said those who try to improve the VA workforce would have support from the American public and veterans service organizations.
VA officials have claimed the lengthy process of training new employees and the increased complexity of claims are part of the reason for the lower production rate. In particular, they note a 200 percent increase over 10 years in the number of claims containing eight or more medical issues, meaning the claim takes longer to complete.
Miller’s staff is not entirely convinced. They point to a 1995 budget report that said regional offices were already dealing with “10 to 15 issues per claim” at that time and that the average time spent processing a claim in 1994 had increased by 86 percent since 1989.
“I believe there are many people who are losing patience as they continue to hear the same excuses,” Miller said of VA’s constant promises that improvements are just around the corner. “They have to begin to be honest in their discussions with the veterans’ community and Congress. Manipulating numbers to show progress is no way to solve a problem.”