VA claims handlers criticize overtime mandate
A push by the Department of Veterans Affairs to clear a backlog of claims by mandating 20 hours overtime a month for claims handlers will do little to ease veterans’ frustration in the view of some handlers and their union.
The VA’s regional office in St. Petersburg, the largest claims office in the nation, is indeed behind in processing claims, the handlers acknowledge.
But in the trenches, the overtime is seen as a short-term fix.
“This is just a stop-gap measure,” said Melvin Ferguson, an Army veteran and employee in the claims office for the past three years.
“We’ve been talking about that all day,” he said Thursday morning, a day after the forced overtime announcement was made. “Never before in the history of the VA have claims analysts been ordered to work overtime.
“This is such short notice, it starts immediately,” he said. “People have planned vacations. This is summer and they’ve got all kinds of things planned. This is really not sitting well with anyone.”
Ferguson expects the union to file complaints about the forced overtime.
The backlog and its impact was the focus of a Tampa Tribune story last month revealing that nearly 70 percent of veterans seeking compensation through the St. Petersburg office wait at least 125 days to finish their first step in the process.
That step is the assignment of a rating, which determines how much compensation they receive.
The VA considers 125 days as backlogged.
At the end of 2012, nearly 50,000 pending claims were on file in the local office, almost half of which were older than 215 days. More than 7,500 veterans had been waiting a year to 569 days to receive their benefit ratings.
This week, the VA ordered more than 10,000 claims handlers nationwide to work at least 20 hours of overtime each month in an effort reduce the backlog.
The overtime mandate lasts through September and comes as many federal workers face furloughs because of automatic budget cuts imposed last year by the president and Congress. The VA is exempt from these so-called sequestration cuts.
“We need to surge our resources now to help those who have waited the longest and end the backlog,” Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits at the VA, said Wednesday.
Ferguson said the backlog problem arises from the way employee performance is measured and won’t be solved by forcing overtime. Claims workers are evaluated on how many and how quickly they process claims, which drives them to grab newer and less complicated claims first.
The performance standards penalize workers who process older, more complicated claims that take more time, he said.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “the numbers look like they didn’t do anything.”
The VA announcement was the second in the past month designed to help veterans with longstanding disability claims. The agency recently announced it would expedite claims decisions for veterans who had been waiting more than a year.
Veterans whose claims are granted would get compensation immediately. Veterans whose claims are denied would have a year to submit more information.
The department has made some progress in recent weeks on claims that have been pending longer than 125 days. The backlog for such claims is now down about 1,000 from where it was at this time last year.
In the past few years, the VA has added health problems resulting from exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange, as well as combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder, to the list of problems presumed to be service-related.
That has added more than 230,000 cases to the department’s claims-processing system.
Also aggravating the problem has been efforts to fix it, documents show. Processors at the St. Petersburg office lost more than 23,000 hours of time to cope with new VA production initiatives and training.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.