Allison Kicky is undersecretary for benefits at Veterans Affairs. (Veterans Affairs)
Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation’s largest organization for combat veterans, has stepped up to defend the Veterans Affairs Department official responsible for processing disability benefits claims, even as some lawmakers have lost patience with the big and growing backlog.
Under fire is Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, whose management is being blamed by some lawmakers for the department’s inability to reduce the growing pile of benefits claims, which now totals almost 900,000, including almost 630,000 more than 125 days old.
Hickey told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee March 20 that the oldest claim she is aware of is 10 years old and that slightly more than 4 percent of claims are older than two years.
The size of the backlog could be cut more quickly, she said, if VA let older claims sit while processing newer ones, but her decision was to work on the oldest claims first.
She also said, as VA has said many times, that the answer to managing the tidal wave of claims will be a combination of new processing procedures, electronic claims, and streamlined application and approval processes.
One of her chief critics is Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, who said he doesn’t see the progress.
“The more people VA hires to process claims, the worse the department’s productivity is,” Miller said. “VA’s demonstrated history shows its inability or refusal to forecast problems and anticipate its needs, and the only people paying a price … are the veterans.”
But Robert Wallace, executive director of the VFW’s Washington office, said in a statement that his group supports Hickey, believing she is “an integral part of the solution to finally breaking a backlog that previous administrations and Congresses helped to create by underfunding the critical areas of automation and staffing.”
The group “strongly believes in holding public servants accountable, but Allison Hickey was handed a tremendous challenge less than two years ago.”
Still, considerable doubt remains about the likelihood VA will be able to meet its goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015, with a pledge to complete all initial claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy.
“I question whether this very, very, ambitious goal is achievable,” said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, the veteran’s committee’s ranking Democrat.
“It would require VA to complete approximately 3.4 million claims in two and a half years. To accomplish this goal, the VA must start averaging the completion of 1.36 million claims a year; this is a 33 percent increase in productivity.”
That may not be easy. In a written statement, the American Federation of Government Employees said the VA workforce has low morale and high turnover. For new employees, training has been reduced from one year to just eight weeks, putting people on the front lines of claims processing before they are fully prepared, AFGE said.