The Department of Veterans Affairs is under growing pressure to reduce a mountain of pending veteran disability claims, and a new voice has been added to the chorus — the U.S. Army.
The Army has spent tens of millions of dollars and doubled staffing for a joint program with the VA aimed at cutting the Army's backlog of soldiers waiting to leave the service because of being wounded, ill or injured.
The number of ailing soldiers waiting to leave the service has grown from 18,000 in 2011 to more than 27,000, largely because the VA is not bringing more manpower to the task, Army officers said.
"The ideal situation would be if they could add some capacity. That means adding some people to do (disability) ratings," says Brig. Gen. Lewis Boone, director of the Army's disability evaluation system.
The VA says its resources are taxed to the limit trying to reduce its own caseload of 900,000 pending disability claims from veterans of all past and present wars. It cannot spare more rating evaluation specialists for the Army program, VA official Danny Pummill says.
"We're providing the maximum effort that we can in both areas," says Pummill, who coordinates VA efforts with the Pentagon.
The Pentagon and VA agreed in 2011 to fashion a "seamless" process for servicemembers to separate from the military because of wounds, illness or injury. The idea was to conduct VA disability ratings for these troops before leaving the service so that within 30 days of becoming civilians, they would begin receiving VA disability checks.
The Army faced the most daunting task. After years of multiple combat deployments and physical wear and tear, far more soldiers faced medical separations than sailors, Marines and Airmen combined.
It was taking an average of 400 days for soldiers to go through medical examinations, evaluation boards, VA rating and out-processing before finally receiving disability checks as civilians.
Since 2011, there have been improvements, the Army says. Data show that some processes controlled by the Army are moving more quickly than expected.
But the flow of cases is stalling in the VA portion of the assembly line. Army data show 6,500 soldiers were waiting to receive VA disability ratings in February, 80 percent more than what the program was designed to handle at that stage.
"Right now, there is a bulge of cases sitting right there awaiting (VA) ratings," says Army Col. Daniel Cassidy, a disability evaluation program director.
As a result, the process was still taking 400 days on average, data show.
In recent weeks, the VA has come under intense criticism for failing to reduce its own 900,000 pending cases, where almost 70 percent or 600,000 cases have been waiting longer than four months.
One group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, has called on President Obama to form a commission to end the backlog. The chair of the House VA committee, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., asked that the VA's benefits chief resign.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has promised that his transformation plan will end the VA backlog by 2015. Pummill says the "surge" of cases in the Army medical separation process should ease within a few months.
"How you handle this surge without impacting on all the other veterans at the same time, it's a balancing act," Pummill says. "I think we got it right."
Army officials says that unless the VA more quickly conducts disability ratings for ailing soldiers, the backlog could persist well into next year.
It impacts the Army's defense role, officers say, particularly as the service becomes smaller in the years ahead. The 27,000 soldiers awaiting medical separations cannot go to war but cannot be replaced until gone.
"It impacts readiness," Cassidy says.
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