The House on Wednesday approved a spending bill that sends a stiff message to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): Congress wants the VA to eliminate its backlog of thousands of veterans waiting on disability claims by 2015.
The disability claims backlog has plagued the VA for the past few years, and has led members of both parties to label the situation as a disgrace to veterans returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq, and older veterans seeking new benefits.
A year ago, the backlog exceeded 600,000 cases, but earlier this month that number was reduced to less than 350,000. The VA has said it would work to eliminate the backlog entirely by 2015, and the spending bill passed today in the House includes funding to help the agency meet that goal.
Specifically, it fully funds a request from the Obama administration to spend $173 million on a VA benefit management system, which aims to allow for a faster, paperless process to handle disability claims. It also provides $20 million to help transfer old paper files into electronic files.
“We’re sending a very strong message… that we want these problems fixed, and we want them fixed now,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) during floor debate on the bill.
Democrats agreed with that sentiment in a committee report accompanying the bill. “With the resources provided in the bill, the VA must eliminate the backlog in 2015,” Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) wrote in the report.
That report also said the VA has improved the way it hands out performance bonuses. Members of both parties have criticized the VA in past years for handing out awards even as the disability backlog grew. But the committee report says the VA has improved this process by linking bonuses to actual performance on the job.
“Most importantly, the Secretary has demonstrated his willingness to use the bonus system as a way to reward and penalize staff based on performance,” the report said.
Despite this improvement, however, the House easily passed a GOP amendment prohibiting the VA from awarding any bonuses in fiscal year 2015 to senior officials. The final bill passed easily in a 416-1 vote — only Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) voted against it.
Overall, the bill for fiscal year 2015 provides $71.5 billion in discretionary spending, down $1.8 billion compared to current funding levels. That mostly reflects a cut to military construction projects, and veterans’ programs were increased by $1.5 billion.
The Obama administration indicated support for the bill on Wednesday, but complained that it doesn’t fund the VA’s medical care program as much as it requested. Still, the bill increases that funding by $1.4 billion.
The Obama administration’s statement on the legislation made no mention of the VA disability backlog, and made no prediction of when the backlog might finally be eliminated.
The VA bill is the first of 12 spending bills that the House is hoping to pass this year, although Congress has had little luck getting through all 12 for the last several years.