From McClatchy News Service:
The Department of Veterans Affairs fell further behind this year in its attempts to give veterans timely decisions on their disability claims, new records show.
The latest numbers are in an annual report the VA prepares for Congress detailing a range of short- and long-term goals for its disability, health and other benefit programs. Overall, the agency either has fallen behind or has made no progress in improving its performance in more than half of what it lists as its key goals.
In the benefits measure the VA has said is "most critical to veterans" -- the speed of processing disability claims -- the agency lost ground for the third year in a row. Moreover, McClatchy has found that the VA put a positive spin on many of its numbers and in two instances provided Congress with incorrect or incomplete figures.
The agency said it took an average of 183 days to process a claim in fiscal 2007, longer than in any of the five years tracked in the report. Processing exceeded its 2007 goal of 160 days and its long-term goal of eventually reducing processing time to 125 days.
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When it was asked about its processing speed last year, for example, the VA told McClatchy that hiring new workers would help it increase production and decrease its backlog of claims in 2007. In fact, processing time increased by an average of six days, and the backlog of pending claims rose from 377,681 to 391,257, the agency's records show.
The VA said this week that it was aggressively tackling the issue, hiring more than 1,000 workers, boosting overtime and revamping training. The agency also said it was receiving more disability claims than it had at any time in recent history, and that it had received more than it had expected in 2007. ...
In many sections of the report, the VA looks past the missed goals to put the best face on its efforts. The VA reports that 95 percent or more of outpatient visits are scheduled within 30 days of patients' desired dates, a fact it's touted to Congress repeatedly. The agency's inspector general, however, found this year that only 75 percent of the visits it examined took place within 30 days. The VA said it didn't agree with that finding and was examining the issue.
The VA also claimed that customer-satisfaction ratings by inpatients at VA hospitals are 10 points higher than ratings from private-sector hospitals. In fact, the number the agency used as a comparison is wrong, and as a result the advantage for VA hospitals is half as big as the VA claims.
The VA told McClatchy on Monday that the mistake was made by a "transposition error and we will be fixing that as soon as possible."
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