VA Highlights Calif. Productivity Gains, More Veterans Wait for Benefits

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    California Watch

    WASHINGTON – A top Department of Veterans Affairs official told a congressional committee today that the agency’s decision to temporarily shutter and retrain staff at its troubled Oakland office proved so successful that the agency has employed the same tactics to speed the delivery of benefits to disabled veterans in Los Angeles and Baltimore.

    “We learned there was goodness in doing that kind of training,” Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

    Hickey said the approach led to a 27 percent increase in caseworker productivity at the Oakland office, which serves veterans in most of Northern and central California. She also said that the Los Angeles office, which was closed for four weeks in January, also was “seeing good early results.”

    But while productivity at the Oakland office has increased since the July retraining, internal VA documents show that has not solved the claims backlog because new claims continue to come in faster than workers can process them.

    The number of veterans waiting for disability claims decisions there – currently more than 30,000 – did drop slightly while the VA off-loaded disability claims filed by Northern and central California veterans to less busy offices in Oklahoma and Nebraska for processing. But last October, it began to rise again.

    The number of veterans waiting for a decision from the Los Angeles office, which also serves Bakersfield and parts of Riverside County, also is up since New Year’s, to more than 24,000.

    Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, who has been pushing for improvements at the Oakland office, praised the staff retraining and the arrival of a new local director, who was brought in from St. Louis.

    “At least they have gotten to the point where they are responding to congressional offices that they weren’t doing before,” she said.

    Nationally, about 900,000 veterans are waiting to learn if they will receive compensation for conditions as serious as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Internal VA documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting reveal that veterans filing their first claim, including those returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, wait more than 600 days for a decision from the Los Angeles and Oakland offices.

    Both offices remain among the slowest in the nation.

    “Every single day there are veterans out there waiting, while workers pick away at a mountain of claims,” said Amy Fairweather of Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based veterans service organization,

    Fairweather said the VA needs more workers to deal with a tidal wave of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as well as aging Vietnam veterans who are seeking help for the first time.

    The internal documents show that despite the VA’s public tallies of thousands of new claims processors hired under President Barack Obama, staff at the VA’s 58 regional offices has increased by 289 since September 2010.

    At today’s committee hearings, Hickey, the VA undersecretary, said staffing should be “based on demand” and that she had increased staffing at both the Los Angeles and Oakland offices.

    But the VA’s internal documents show staffing at those two sites has declined.

    After the hearing, the chairman of the committee, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., issued a statement accusing the VA of “sugar-coating the problems it faces and overstating its ability to solve those problems.”

    He presented a chart showing VA worker productivity had declined every year under the Obama administration. On Tuesday, Miller had called for Hickey to resign – a suggestion the VA deflected, saying she would stick around to fix the problem.

    Hickey provided no further evidence of her assertions during the hearing and left without answering questions from reporters. Asked about the apparent discrepancies after the hearing, VA officials said they needed more time to prepare a response.

    Democratic lawmakers, including the veterans affairs committee’s ranking member, Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, also say they want Hickey to stay on. In an interview after today’s hearing, Michaud noted that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki is the fourth official to hold that position since the start of the Bush administration.

    “You need continuity to get something done,” he said.

    Speier said she has been impressed by Hickey’s “broad understanding of all the issues, and her command of the steps that have been taken.”

    “A lot depends on whether it is executed,” Speier said. “She deserves an opportunity to make good on her promise.”

    VA internal documents obtained by CIR also show a decline in worker productivity nationally over the past four years – to 281 claims per worker per year, or fewer than one claim per workday.

    Hickey said workers were putting a greater emphasis on accuracy and granting veterans the correct amount of compensation.

    But the internal VA documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting show that when a veteran appeals a denial of benefits, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals found mistakes 72 percent of the time during the first three months of this year – higher than when Obama took office in 2009.

    This story was produced by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. For more, visit www.cironline.org. Contact the reporter at aglantz@baycitizen.org.

    View this story on California Watch