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VA's ability to provide benefits worsens

WASHINGTON—The Department of Veterans Affairs is falling behind in its efforts to provide prompt disability benefits for veterans nationwide, as its backlog of cases continues to grow, new reports show.

In fact, the department's performance slipped in the past year even though its workload was lower than anticipated.

For its part, the VA said that its productivity did drop last year but that things should improve next year, as a new batch of employees gets fully trained and up to speed.

"We've made an investment in 2006 in terms of hiring a lot of new employees," said Michael Walcoff, one of the department's top benefits officials. "We feel very confident that when they are trained, they will be very productive."

The performance measures are contained in the VA's annual accountability report sent to Congress and the president in November. The VA said it was able to meet many of its performance "targets" for the year, even though several of them are far from the VA's long-term goals.

Earlier this year, top VA officials, including Secretary James Nicholson, told Congress they were anticipating a huge increase in claims for disability compensation and pensions, due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, continuing claims from older veterans and a special outreach program.

In testifying to Congress in February that the VA was "focused on delivering timely and accurate benefits," Secretary Nicholson and other VA officials said the department expected to receive 910,126 new claims and complete a decision on 838,566.

Instead, the VA received far fewer claims—806,382—and it produced a decision on 774,378, or 8 percent fewer than expected, VA data show.

As productivity dropped, the VA's closely watched backlog of claims went up, and has continued to rise since the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. It now tops 400,000.

For years, the VA has tried to get this backlog of pending cases to 250,000; the figure topped 400,000 in 2002, and after driving the number down to 253,000 the VA boasted about its success. Now, most of those gains have been erased.

"They haven't made a lot of progress in the last year," said Randy Reese, national service director for Disabled American Veterans. "I know it's on their plate, and I know they are worried about it."

Another closely watched measure is the time taken to decide each claim, and in the past year that average processing time rose to 177 days, 10 days longer than in the previous year. It was the second straight year performance dropped.

The VA wants to process claims in 125 days, a target that had been relaxed from prior goals that aimed to bring the average to 100 or fewer days.

To explain the processing slowdown from 2005 to 2006, the VA in its recent report to Congress gave three reasons: a concentration on older claims, the training of new staff, and the fact that it had "received a greater-than- expected number of claims in 2006."

In fact, the opposite was true.

As early as February 2005, the VA anticipated receiving 818,076 claims in fiscal 2006, and Nicholson in February 2006 upped that to 910,000 claims - both above the actual tally of 806,382. (The VA this week told McClatchy Newspapers the report to Congress was in error and shouldn't have used the word "expected.")

The VA maintains a blizzard of measures, goals and targets designed to help improve service to the nation's 25 million veterans and their families. The VA's health system generally did a better job of meeting its goals than did the benefits system, which spends more than $30 billion dispensing disability, pension, education, and other compensation.

An analysis of the VA's performance report shows the benefits division improved its performance from 2005 to 2006 in one-third of its key measures and met its long-term targets in less than a third.

Among additional measures:

_The time to process education benefit claims slipped from 33 days to 40 days, compared with the long-term goal of processing claims in 10 days. The department said this week it has already brought the education backlog down.

_The error rate on disability claims improved, from 16 percent to 12 percent, although it remains far from the long-term goal of a 2 percent error rate.

_The processing time for VA pension claims increased from 68 days to 92 days, far from the long-term goal of 60 days.

_The time to handle the average appeal of a disability decision grew from 622 days to 657 days, compared with the long-term goal of 365 days.

_The percent of time it turns in reports to Congress by the due date dropped from 21 percent to 13 percent, compared with the long-term goal of 100 percent.