WASHINGTON (MCT) – The average time for a denied claim to work its way through the cumbersome Department of Veterans Affairs appeals process shot up to more than 900 days last year, double the department's long-term target.
After hovering between 500 and 750 days for the past decade, what the VA refers to as its "appeals resolution time" hit 923 days in fiscal 2013. That was a 37 percent jump in one year, from 675 in fiscal 2012, according to a review of the department's annual performance report.
The department's long-term goal is to get that figure to 400 days, although the trend over the past decade has been in the other direction.
Asked about the slowdown during a conference call to discuss the VA's appeals system, the department said it has been reviewing the measure to see if it's the most meaningful one to convey to veterans how long the appeals process might take. The department also said it was continuing to look for ways to make the process more efficient.
Laura Eskenazi, the official who oversees the department's Board of Veterans' Appeals, cautioned that the long processing time "is not at all indicative of inactivity." She said the many layers built into the system prompt many of the delays.
The VA organized a conference call Thursday with reporters to explain its complicated, multi-layered appeals process, which begins when a veteran's claim for disability benefits is denied in full or in part.
Disability benefits are awarded to veterans who suffer physical or mental injuries during their military service. They range from $131 a month to $2,858 a month for a single veteran.
The VA has been engaged in a very public battle to reduce its overall backlog – the number of claims awaiting an initial decision. By 2015, the department wants to get the backlog to zero. That would ensure that no claim is pending for more than 125 days. That's the goal that has gotten the most attention from Congress, the administration and veterans groups.
Veterans who appeal their decisions go into a separate system that can extend those waits far longer.
That appeals system has evolved in layers since it was adopted after World War I. It allows veterans, survivors or their representatives to trigger a fresh review of the entire appeal at any time by submitting new evidence or information, the VA said. The Board of Veterans' Appeals can grant, deny or – most commonly – remand the case to one of the VA's regional offices for additional review.
According to the most recent VA performance report, published in December, the VA's "strategic target" – essentially a long-term goal – for total appeals resolution time is 400 days; its short-term goal is 650 days.
It hasn't hit that 650 target in the last five years, although it got close in 2010, when the average appeals time was 656 days, records show.
Jacqueline Maffucci, research director for the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said that the VA's intense focus on reducing its backlog could help explain the jump in appeals processing times.
"As the VA has pushed to end the backlog, there's been a diversion of resources from the appeals system to tackling the backlog," she said.