Lawmakers still are worried about the growing backlog of appealed benefits cases at the Veterans Affairs Department — but VA officials still don't think it's a major problem.
Members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee renewed their questions about VA's benefits system and growing appeals workload Thursday, saying they are disturbed by reports that show an average wait of more than 3.5 years for appeals to be completed.
The number of benefits cases awaiting appeal decisions has jumped about 10 percent in the last year, alarming lawmakers and outside advocates.
VA planners have focused mainly on the backlog of first-time benefits requests in recent years, after that backlog grew to more than 610,000 cases in 2013 and became a national scandal. That total now sits at around 250,000 cases, but despite the dramatic drop, VA promises of reaching zero by the end of 2015 appear out of reach.
Department officials said Thursday that more work needs to be done to streamline the appeals process as well, but pushed back against narratives that the appeals system is getting worse.
Beth McCoy, deputy undersecretary for field operations at the Veterans Benefits Administration, said that while the number of pending appeals cases has grown steadily, that's a function of the rising total of veterans claims, not an overwhelmed system.
She said the rate of claims appeals of claims has remained steady in recent years, as has the rate of new awards for appealed cases. And she noted that more than 70 percent of veterans who appeal a benefits case are already receiving some payout from the department.
Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La., chair of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's disability assistance panel, said reports of veterans waiting up to a decade for a final decision on their appeals are "alarming and unacceptable" and risk causing veterans to lose faith in the system.
"These claims need to be adjudicated ... and the system needs to be thorough, swift and fair," he said.
VA leaders have said they plan to look at significant changes to the appeals process as the first-time claims problem is resolved. Lawmakers have promised extra oversight into all facets of VA operations in light of the department's dramatic funding increases in recent budgets and last year's patient wait times scandal.