Lawmakers address problems with VA programs

WASHINGTON—Congressional leaders from both parties have begun pushing the Bush administration to boost staffing for its veterans' disability compensation program, now mired in a growing backlog of cases and beset by increasing delays.

At the same time, Democratic lawmakers are writing legislation to increase funding and enrollment in a pension program for poor veterans and their widows. In December, Knight Ridder revealed that the program was overlooking the vast majority of people who could participate—an estimated 2 million veterans or widows who collectively aren't getting as much as $22 billion a year.

"Many veterans and their survivors who are most in need of the pension program—our World War II and Korean-era veterans—have no idea that the program exists," said Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, which just finished a series of hearings on the Bush administration's 2007 budget proposal for the VA.

The VA's disability compensation program sends checks to 2.7 million veterans for injuries suffered during military service. Yet high error rates, lengthy appeals, backlogs and wide regional inconsistencies mean many veterans wait years for decisions. One result, detailed by Knight Ridder: Thousands of older veterans die with their claims still pending.

Although the Bush administration expects the backlog to continue rising, its 2007 budget proposal calls for decreasing the staff that directly handles such cases—149 fewer workers, from the current year's 6,574.

The VA has long wanted to reduce its backlog to less than 250,000 claims. But the department's most recent projections have it rising to nearly 400,000 by the end of 2007.

In addition, the average time to process claims, which the VA had said would drop to 145 days, or 125 days, or even 100 days, is projected to increase this year and next, to more than 180 days.

Both measures are closely watched indicators of the department's efficiency. The fact that the VA seems to be losing ground has Republicans and Democrats concerned.

Although Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives are focusing on staffers directly assigned to disability compensation cases, the VA said in a statement that it is "more appropriate" to look at the overall number of staffers, which also includes workers handling pension and burial cases. Looked at that way, the department said it would see a reduction of 48 staffers next year.

All three lines of work are expected to see increases in claims next year, according to department projections. The VA said that the backlog is projected to rise partly because of a new congressional outreach mandate.

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., chairman of the House veterans committee, said in a Feb. 23 letter that his committee "strongly recommends" adding 200 VA claims workers into the president's budget, slightly increasing the level over the current year's.

Buyer "definitely is dissatisfied that the backlog is going back up," Brooke Adams, a committee spokeswoman, said this week. "The goal is to significantly reduce the backlog."

Democrats and Republicans on the committee say the administration also needs to beef up its appeals division, generally the source of the longest waits for veterans. In 2005, the average response time for a board decision was 622 days—well above the department's goal of 365 days.

Beyond that, there's also a move afoot to increase funding for the VA's pension program. Only about 20 percent of veterans and widows who could get the pensions do so, a VA study estimates. The payments are also so low that widows who have just $7,094 in annual income make too much to qualify.

"It's a disgrace how little widows get," said Ann G. Knowles, president of a national association of county veterans officials. She testified before Buyer's committee late last month, citing Knight Ridder's December story as a reason to boost funding for the pension program.

Democrats on the House veterans committee are recommending the administration increase pension payments to 125 percent of the poverty level, or about $12,250 a year for an individual.

Several lawmakers are also working on legislation to increase payments and to boost outreach efforts to sign more people up for the pensions. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is working on legislation that could be ready early next month, a spokesman said, as are Democrats in the House, such Howard Berman of California.