The Baltimore office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, once the slowest and most error-prone in the country, has reduced its backlog of disability claims by nearly 60 percent and significantly improved its accuracy, officials said Tuesday.
Antione Waller, named director of the office 11 months ago, said it has reduced its backlog from 6,000 claims in September to about 2,600. And while 26 percent of cases were found to be in error 30 months ago, the error rate has fallen to 16 percent, officials said.
The office serves Maryland's 450,000 veterans.
"There's no doubt that this organization has gone through a tremendous transformation," Waller said. The goal, he said, is for veterans to "feel like when they greet us, we know who they are, we have all their information, and we can guide and direct them."
The office is working to "meet their expectation and not ours," Waller said.
The Baltimore Sun revealed in January 2013 that the local office was the slowest in the country in processing disability claims and the one that made the most mistakes. At the time, about 84 percent — or 16,800 of the 20,000 local claims — were at least four months old.
The disability backlog has been one of two major problems plaguing the VA nationally. The agency also has been under fire for how long sick and injured service members must wait for treatment in its medical centers.
At Baltimore's disability benefits office, Waller said he has brought in more experienced management and hired 20 additional full-time employees, increasing the staff to 163 people. The office does most of its work by computer now, virtually eliminating paper claims, and has sent about 20 percent of its workload to other regions to speed the time it takes to approve or deny requests for benefits.
Critics have expressed the concern that moving cases to other offices amounts to shifting problems elsewhere, though agency supporters say VA offices across the country are reporting much smaller backlogs.
Jackie Maffucci, research director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the VA's decision to shift cases from one regional office to another to accelerate the processing of claims is a good strategy.
"It's almost like you're at the grocery store and five people are in one line and no one is another line," she said. "You'll go to the cashier with no one in line. By and large, that was seen as a way to expedite the claims so you don't have a bottleneck in certain regional offices with higher demands."
The percentage of backlogged claims awaiting initial decisions is now far lower in Baltimore than nationally. The backlog for Maryland veterans is about 17 percent, compared with about 30 percent across the United States.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat, said she is still not satisfied with the VA's performance.
"Progress has been made, but more work remains to be done," Mikulski said in a statement. She noted that in Baltimore and nationwide, veterans can face waits of several years if they appeal the denial of a disability claim. "I'll continue to insist on a sense of urgency."
After The Sun's 2013 report, Mikulski called for an infusion of resources and helped develop a plan with then-VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to address the problem. Shinseki, a decorated war general, resigned a year ago amid the scandal involving the VA medical system delays.
Shifting claims is one way the VA reduced the national backlog from a high of 611,000 in March 2013 to about 115,000, an 81 percent reduction. The backlog is now at its lowest since 2007, when the VA started keeping track.
Eliminating paper files and encouraging veterans to file "fully developed claims" that include all the necessary documentation are two other ways that the VA has improved its disability claims process.
Maffucci said it is hard to tell which changes had the biggest effect in offices such as Baltimore's.
"Because the VA made so many changes all at once, it's hard to know why we're seeing the decline," she said.
The VA should focus now on reducing the amount of time that disabled service members must wait when they appeal, she said.
"There's been progress in one area, but because you have such a large number of claims moving through the system and going faster, you'll see a higher volume going into the appeals side," Maffucci said.
Jerry Manar, a deputy director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, is among those concerned that Maryland claims have been shifted to other offices. He said it is impossible to know whether Maryland veterans are getting slower service from those offices.
"So what's the bottom line?" he said. "VA has made some progress in making Baltimore look good because it transferred many of its claims to other offices. VA has not told us whether those cases have been worked or are simply waiting in a new location."
Manar also criticized the VA for holding a news conference Tuesday to report progress when "there is still a boatload of work to be done."