VA to prioritize year-plus claims: But who will lose their place in line?

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network
The VA's Office of the Inspector General included this photo in its assessment of the VA's Roanoke, Va., regional office. Inspectors found veterans' files stacked on top of already-full filing cabinets throughout the facility. (Photo via Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

The Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general’s assessment team included this photo in its look at the department’s Roanoke, Va., regional office. Inspectors found veterans’ files stacked on top of already-full filing cabinets throughout the offi ce. (Photo via Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

Facing criticism over a severe backlog of disability claims, the Department of Veterans Affairs made headlines this month by saying it will start prioritizing benefits claims that have been pending for longer than a year. The decision will affect about a quarter of the nearly one million claims waiting to be processed.

So if one group of disability claims take priority, which groups will now wait longer? It turns out there’s no good answer to that question, leading to one criticism we’ve heard a lot in our reporting: that there is no “front of the line.”

A more accurate assessment may be that there seems to be no “line” at all.

Claims are processed at regional VA offices around the country — offices that vary widely in the size of their backlogs, the average time it takes them to process claims, and their level of organization and leadership. According to the latest data from the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, the number of pending claims ranges from the hundreds (Lincoln, Neb.) to more than 40,000 (Waco, Texas).

The VA’s stated goal with this latest announcement — to process the year-plus claims inside of six months — is ambitious, and veterans advocates, Congress and the VA itself all agree that ambition is needed. But without significant structural changes (moving from paper to digital files, for example, which is underway but moving slowly), the VA is on a steep, slippery hill.

No matter how long it takes them to get through the priority claims, new claims will continue to pile up behind them. More than a decade of sending women and men to war guarantees it — and there is no way to predict how quickly the new claims will pile up.

For more background on the disability claims backlog, see our story, “After combat, a wait.”

>>   If you are a veteran waiting on a disability claim, share your experience with us.

>>   If you are a reporter looking to do the backlog story in your area, I’ve posted a reporting guide that might help you out.