The Baltimore office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the nation's worst performer in processing disability claims, will receive more employee training, an influx of senior staff and a new digital processing system ahead of schedule, under a plan outlined Tuesday by VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
The infusion of resources is intended to reduce a 26.2 percent error rate and help reduce the backlog of outstanding claims by disabled veterans.
"What we have found since the beginning of the war — and our war is now 10 years old — when our veterans return, though they face the nightmares of war, they often face a quagmire" with the claims process, Mikulski said. "We're going to use the best tools of the digital age to help the warriors of the modern age."
The moves follow a Baltimore Sun report that found that the error rate and the backlog in disability claims in Baltimore are the highest in the country.
The Baltimore office serves 450,000 veterans in Maryland. Officials have set goals of improving accuracy to 98 percent by 2015 while reducing the average wait time for a benefits decision from 11 months to four.
Of the nearly 20,000 claims pending, about 16,800, or 84 percent, are more than 125 days old.
The VA added 35 employees last month to the 93 already processing the claims of Maryland veterans in the Baltimore office, said VA Undersecretary Allison A. Hickey.
That was on top of 17 workers the agency added in December as part of a "surge team" to reduce Baltimore's backlog.
As a result, the office more than doubled the monthly number of claims decisions, from 448 in December to 939 in January. Officials said the teams would remain on site this month and next.
Mikulski, chairwoman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said she wants Congress to spend $2.1 billion in the coming federal fiscal year on processing disability claims, which is more than double the amount provided in 2007.
"I can assure you, I am going to prod the process," she said. "I am going to crack my budgetary whip. I don't have a magic wand, but I do have a gavel and I intend to use it."
Shinseki, a retired Army general, said VA employees have "long lacked the right training and tools to meet our expectations."
While the agency has processed a record 4.1 million paper claims since 2008, veterans have submitted 4.6 million more.
"Many veterans, including those in Maryland, have to wait too long to receive the benefits they've earned and that's never been acceptable," Shinseki said. "We've begun implementing a robust plan to fix this decades-old problem."
With advances in military medicine, the claims have grown more complex. Service members in Afghanistan and Iraq are 10 times more likely to survive their wounds than those who served in World War II. Nearly half the veterans of the conflicts of the past decade are seeking disability benefits.
Shinseki said the solution lies in technology and training.
"Simply put, we must hire the best people, train them, expose them to inspiring leadership and equip them with the right tools," he said. "We owe our veterans everything we can do to enable them to be as successful in their communities as they were in their formations."
According to Hickey, problems at the Baltimore office were worsened in 2007, as the Defense Department and the VA responded to reports about patient neglect and deteriorating living conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and other facilities.
Officials set up teams in three regional offices, including Baltimore, to develop a new system to process claims for the most severely injured veterans at their discharge.
Those claims can take four times the resources of a typical claim, Hickey said.
"It was a very rapid stand-up; we did not do it as well as we should have," Hickey said. "We take responsibility for that. We did it in order to address the needs immediately. As a result, the system could not handle the big surge we put on it."
The VA has taken responsibility for that system from the Baltimore office and moved it to Providence, R.I., freeing the 35 employees who now are working on Maryland claims.
Hickey said plans to improve performance in Baltimore have been under way for about a year. She said they include hiring a new director and assistant director.
Other measures include a new processing model that categorizes claims based on their complexity and refresher training for the Baltimore staff scheduled for April. The implementation of a new digital processing system planned for November was bumped up to June.
Hickey said the country's "very best inventory manager and coach" will arrive in Baltimore this week and stay two months to redesign the work flow.
Hickey said the efforts to improve performance in Baltimore are not expected to have a negative impact on the VA's other 55 regional offices.
Verna Jones, director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation with the American Legion, said the organization hopes the changes under way in Baltimore will better serve Maryland veterans, many of whom wait years for benefits.
The American Legion plans to conduct a quality assessment review in Baltimore in the coming weeks.
"We're going to wait and see," Jones said. "We're happy the VA recognizes that this is a problem and that they're doing something. We have no way of knowing what's going to happen. We're hopeful because our veterans deserve the best we can give them."