WASHINGTON (AP) — The Veterans Affairs Department is hoping the installation of a new computer system will eliminate the growing backlog of disability claims, but when officials showed the new program off to congressional staff last week, it didn't work. That example as well as the ever-growing number of backlogged claims led lawmakers to question the VA Wednesday about whether it can realistically meet its 2015 target of ending the backlog entirely.
Lawmakers on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said they were tired of hearing about the longstanding problem.
"We need to know if we're on the right path," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. "Right now, we're just treading water."
Veterans receive monthly payments for injuries or diseases incurred or made worse as a result of their military service. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred an increase in the number of claims coming to the VA, and the complexity of the claims has increased as well. The number of veterans claiming eight or more injuries jumping by more than 200 percent in the past decade.
The number of claims considered backlogged, pending more than 125 days, has jumped from 180,000 to 600,000 over the past 3 1/2 years.
The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Richard Burr, brought up last week's failed demonstration project. VA officials said the computer program was run in a "lower-level environment" not at the production level where claims were actually processed. Burr made clear he wasn't buying the VA's claim of progress.
"Wonderful testimony. It almost makes me embarrassed to ask questions that deal with facts," Burr said.
VA Undersecretary Allison Hickey emphasized that the VA was processing more claims than ever — more than 4.1 million over the past four years. She said that the agency made it easier for Vietnam veterans to get benefits for conditions related to Agent Orange, for Gulf War veterans to get benefits for conditions related to Gulf War illness, and for veterans of all wars to get benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"While the decision was absolutely the right thing to do, it had an impact on our ability to keep up with the new claims coming in, and on the aging of claims we had already received," Hickey said.
Hickey said that the VA has rolled out its computer program to 20 disability claims processing offices and that a full rollout will have occurred by the end of the year.
Veterans groups seemed more optimistic than many lawmakers that VA is on the right track. Joseph Violante, national legislative director for the advocacy group, Disabled American Veterans, said the VA has set the right goals and that it has committed leadership.
"It's still too soon to judge whether the transformation will be successful," he said.