WASHINGTON – Veterans advocates and lawmakers reacted with dismay Thursday to reports that the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Buffalo regional office remains one of the slowest in the country in processing disability claims, but VA officials noted that the office is doing far better than it was a little more than a year ago.
When the VA’s backlog peaked in April of last year, vets had to wait an average of 267 days to get their claims processed by the Buffalo office.
But now, the wait is down to 185 days, said Beth McCoy, deputy undersecretary for field operations at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Nevertheless, as of Monday, 59.9 percent of the claims at the Buffalo office were pending for more than 125 days, meaning they were part of the case backlog that the VA has been trying to address. In comparison, nationwide, 51 percent of cases were pending for more than 125 days.
The newest figures show that the Buffalo benefits office had the seventh-worst backlog among the VA’s 57 regional offices – a fact that came as no surprise to veterans advocates such as Christopher Kreiger.
“It’s still a minimum of 180 days before a veteran sees or hears anything,” said Kreiger, president and chief executive officer of WNYHeroes Inc., a nonprofit that aids veterans who are waiting for their disability claims to be processed.
VA officials on a conference call with Buffalo-area reporters Thursday indicated there were several reasons why the agency has struggled with disability claims backlogs, including a wave of new cases from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
In addition, a rule change now allows many more Vietnam War veterans to claim disability in connection with their exposure to Agent Orange, a cancer-causing defoliant that the U.S. military used in Southeast Asia at the time.
Despite repeated questioning, though, the VA officials on the call offered no clear explanation for why wait times at the Buffalo office are higher than most other regional offices.
“I don’t think there’s been any definitive analysis as to why one station has more claims, less claims,” said Steve Westerfeld, a VA spokesman.
The lack of a clear explanation for the Buffalo office’s problems outraged Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who sent a letter to the embattled VA Secretary, Eric K. Shinseki, earlier in the week demanding answers.
“They’re talking about national trends, but they’re not saying anything about why there’s this regional disparity,” Higgins said. “They’re not saying why we’re the outlier.”
On the contrary, the VA officials stressed the progress that the Buffalo office has made in the past year.
At the peak of the backlog in March and April of 2013, the Buffalo office reported about 2,100 cases that were more than a year old, McCoy said. Today there are only about 650 such cases.
Meanwhile, the average number of days pending for cases in the Buffalo office has fallen by 13.6 days just since the start of May.
VA officials cited several reasons for those improvements, including mandatory overtime that many workers in the office are putting in and voluntary overtime that others are working. Improved processes and technology – which also have been implemented nationally – have helped as well.
“We’ve made progress,” said Lillie Jackson, assistant director of the Buffalo office. “We’re making progress. We’re not finished yet.”
The VA officials conceded, though, that at times, the Buffalo office has taken on additional cases from other offices that were even more overburdened. More recently, though, the VA moved 500 cases out of Buffalo and to other regional offices to lighten the burden locally.
In addition, the VA officials said they are in the process of adding 19 employees to the local office.
That should help, Kreiger said.
“Unless the VA does something to increase staff, you’re going to continue to have backlogs,” he said.
Jeffrey Freedman, a Buffalo attorney whose practice specializes in handling appeals of veterans disability cases, agreed that staffing is the major problem.
“We spend all this money on things like fighter jets,” Freedman said. “We don’t spend nearly as much on our veterans when they come back from the front lines.”
Christopher Grover, a lawyer for Freedman’s practice who handles those veterans appeals, said he has noticed another sign that the agency is understaffed.
As it has cut back on wait times for processing the original disability claims, the processing of appeals is taking longer and longer.
“The problem is, they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Grover said.
And even with that, the wait times on the initial claims pose a significant burden to veterans, said Kreiger, whose nonprofit helps veterans with rent and other expenses while they wait for their cases to be decided.
WNYHeroes Inc. is on a pace to provide $100,000 in aid to such veterans this year – more than four times what it provided three years ago. Yet Kreiger said his agency still isn’t doing all it could.
“We could do a quarter million a year,” he said. “The need is there.”
The latest data about the VA’s backlog on disability claims comes amid a scandal emanating out of the VA Hospital in Phoenix, which, according to an investigation, falsified records to mask the long length of time that patients had to wait for appointments.
The VA’s recent problems have prompted several lawmakers, including Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, to call for Shinseki’s resignation.
And one of the very first lawmakers to do so – Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence – said the delays in processing disability claims offer more proof that the VA needs a shakeup.
“It’s a sign that the VA is mismanaged,” said Collins, who called for Shinseki’s resignation last year after it came clear that staffers at the Buffalo VA Medical Center had been reusing insulin pens on multiple patients, thereby potentially exposing them to HIV and hepatitis. “We still need to get rid of Shinseki. He’s not up to the management challenge.”