The Department of Veterans Affairs has fallen behind in staffing goals as burnout sets in and law changes from the Biden administration drastically increase work demands, according to reports.
A review of the VA by the department’s inspector general published over the summer found “severe occupational staffing shortages” of 3,118 vacancies across 282 occupations at health centers — a staggering 20% increase from FY 2022 following annual decreases over the previous four years.
The report named the “practical nurse” role as the most frequently cited shortage, followed by “medical support assistance” as the most cited nonclinical occupation. However, the report noted that “not all occupations designated as a severe shortage by each facility were included,” such as an optometrist, which 22 facilities named as a concern.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act to expand qualifications for veteran claims by allowing greater access to healthcare following exposure to toxic substances during military service — colloquially known as the “burn pit legislation.” President Biden signed the bill into law on Aug. 10, 2022.
Over 500,000 individuals had filed paperwork for PACT Act-related claims by April of this year, mostly related to burn pit exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan, Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam and radiation exposure issues from various military sites in the 1970s and ’80s, The Military Times reported.
Biden in 2016 revealed his belief that burn pit exposure led to his son Beau Biden’s cancer and eventual death, telling a congressional hearing on the matter he would be “the biggest pain in your neck as long as I live, until we figure out about these burn pits,” The Washington Post reported. He has repeated the claim several times during his campaign.
The VA worried about the potential tsunami of fresh claims, which would put pressure on a system already straining from burnout. VA Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs in April warned that inability to fulfill claims could undermine confidence in the department. The VA’s website currently estimates around 103 days from filing to receiving a response.
“I am concerned about ensuring we take care of our employees because when we take care of them, they can take care of veterans,” Jacobs said at the time, even as some argued that the surge in claims indicates a strong belief in the department’s ability to help veterans.
“We’re going to take that to drive specific improvements to the overall process,” Jacobs said.
VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes in a statement to Fox News Digital said that claims processors have worked hard to process “more claims than ever before” starting in 2021 and are on course to “break that record again in 2023.”
A department spokesperson said that veterans have filed more than 2.38 million total benefits claims in FY 2023 — a nearly 40% increase year-to-date, which already had hit an all-time record.
“Veterans have also submitted more than 2.25 million ‘intents to file’ during this fiscal year — 59% more than all of last fiscal year and also an all-time record,” the spokesperson noted, adding that the claims inventory has hit over 1 million claims and the backlog — the number of claims older than 125 days — has exceeded 300,000, even though they stressed that number is far from the record 70% backlog recorded in 2013.
Hayes insisted that the department will continue to “take steps to increase support for” claims raters, including “reviewing the standards system, adding new PACT Act trainings, adding new decision support tools and technology to the claims process,” among others.
“One of our top priorities at VA is supporting claims processors so they can continue to deliver for veterans at record rates,” he said, stressing that the department has delivered “more than $150 billion in total earned benefits to veterans and their survivors thus far in 2023 alone.”
Hayes explained that the department hired and trained 11,480 new claims processors since FY 2021, representing a 58% growth in the total size of the benefits administration and growing the workforce to “more than 31,000 employees for the first time in VA history.”
“These claims processors have been particularly critical in helping VA implement the PACT Act — processing nearly 630,000 PACT Act claims since Jan. 1, 2023, and delivering more than $2.1 billion in earned retroactive PACT Act benefits to veterans and their survivors,” he said.
“Of those conditions, the total grant rate is 77% — a stark increase from before the PACT Act was passed into law,” Hayes added.