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 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 told USA TODAY.
"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 Army backlog of soldiers waiting to leave the service because of health issues is not included in the VA's 900,000 pending disability claims from veterans.
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.
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.
The slowdown occurred even after the VA had increased the number of rating specialists handling Army cases from 119 in October to 135 in January, according to VA statistics. As a result, the process was still taking 400 days on average, data show.
In recent weeks, the VA has come under criticism for failing to reduce its own backlog, in which almost , or 600,000 cases, or 70%, have been waiting longer than four months.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has promised that his transformation plan will end the VA backlog by 2015.
Army officials say the backlog affects the Army's defense role. The 27,000 soldiers awaiting medical separations cannot go to war but cannot be replaced until gone. "It impacts readiness," Army Col. Daniel Cassidy says.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has promised to eliminate the VA backlog by 2015.
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