AP News

FACT CHECK: Disability claims still growing at VA


WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama paints an encouraging picture of the additional resources his administration has poured into helping veterans get disability benefits and mental health treatment. But he glosses over just how much those problems have grown during his time in office.

Obama spoke Monday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. His Republican rival for the White House, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is set to address the same group Tuesday. A look at Obama's assertions about the Veterans Affairs Department's efforts and how they compare with the facts:

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OBAMA: "We've hired thousands of claims processors. We're investing in paperless systems. To their credit, the dedicated folks at the VA are now completing 1 million claims a year, but there's been a tidal wave of new claims."

THE FACTS: Veterans can be eligible for help with conditions caused or aggravated by their military service. The government, however, has long struggled to keep up with the claims, and the backlog has grown worse during the president's term in office as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In May 2009, about 135,000 claims for disability benefits had been pending for more than 125 days, representing about one-third of all pending claims. Today, that number has more than quadrupled, to 558,000 claims — about two-thirds of all those pending.

As Obama emphasized, the Veterans Affairs Department has processed more claims than ever in the past two years. In 2010, the VA completed a million claims but received about 1.2 million new ones. In 2011, the department again processed more than 1 million claims, but about 1.3 million new claims came in.

The department's independent inspector general has said the VA made the problem worse by not assigning enough staff to process appeals and not following its own guidelines in processing older claims.

For example, when investigators reviewed the claims processed at three offices in California, they found that division managers did not conduct monthly reviews of those claims pending for more than a year — a violation of policy that led to unnecessary delays.

In recent congressional hearings, lawmakers from both parties have voiced frustration with the VA's inability to cut into the backlog despite the additional resources allotted to the task. Obama noted that the VA has redeployed 1,200 claims experts to target and tackle the most complex claims in the backlog. It's also moving to a paperless system.

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OBAMA: "We've also focused on the urgent needs of our veterans with PTSD. We've poured tremendous resources into this fight."

THE FACTS: Obama correctly noted that the administration has increased its investment in helping veterans deal with the mental wounds of war, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. Staffing for counselors, psychologists and mental health workers is up 45 percent since 2005, with the department recently announcing that about 1,900 more mental health workers were being added to the fold.

But there too investigators found that the VA routinely did not follow its own guidelines in treating patients seeking mental health treatment. The department had claimed that 95 percent of new patients seeking mental health treatment got a full evaluation within the department's goal of 14 days. But the independent investigators found performance was far worse; nearly half of the veterans seeking mental health care for the first time waited about 50 days before getting a full evaluation.

Investigators explained the conflicting numbers by stating that the VA did not have a reliable and accurate method of determining whether patients were getting timely access to mental health care. They said the VA's measure "had no real value."

Obama called it an outrage when he hears about service members and veterans who died waiting for help. "We've got to do better," he said. "This has to be all hands on deck."


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