On Feb. 16, 2022, VA Secretary Denis McDonough held his monthly press conference at VA Central Office in Washington, D.C., which was streamed live to reporters and VA employees. The event covered updates to how VA is handling the omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, VBA’s progress on the claims backlog, NCA’s handling of uninterrupted memorial services, VHA’s mission to meet timely appointments and care authorizations, and the secretary’s work with the Congress to invest in VA employees.
The secretary began the event by noting VA’s core responsibilities: providing Veterans with timely access to world-class care and earned benefits. But getting right down to business, he first addressed the question on many Vets’ minds – the claims backlog.
“VBAs employees have processed more than 7,000 Veteran benefit claims per day for 18 straight business days and counting, the longest such streak in VA history,” he said.
What does that mean for Veterans?
The claims backlog spiked in 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but according to the most recent Monday Morning Workload Report, published each Monday since 2004, the number of disability and pension claims pending for longer than 125 days has leveled off.
“That means tens of thousands of Veterans are now getting the benefits they’ve earned and so rightly deserve,” the secretary said.
The pandemic has affected more than just VBA’s resilient workforce, though.
“NCA’s employees have fought through January as well, making sure there was no interruption of memorial services for Veterans, their families and survivors – despite nearly 200 NCA employees (about 10% of NCA’s overall workforce) being out at one time or another due to COVID,” McDonough said.
And in VHA, employees completed nearly three million in-person health care appointments in January. That’s 11% more than January 2021, the secretary noted. In addition, VHA completed 827,000 telehealth appointments and provided 543,000 community care authorizations, which is 20% more than January 2021.
“That’s the type of amazing work that VA employees do for Vets every day, every week, every month of the year,” he said. “That’s why I always say that those employees are VA’s number one asset” and why “I’m asking Congress… to invest in that work – in their pay, their bonuses, their growth and their development.”
Underscoring this need, the secretary noted VA’s desire to remain competitive with private practice pay: VA’s current nursing turnover rate is higher than any point in the last 15 years. The secretary also lobbied for Congress to pass a 2022 budget, not a year-long continuing resolution. With a full year’s budget, VA can continue to hire claims processors to further its backlog reduction initiative, fund cemetery expansion and meet the “billion-dollar shortfall” in community care funding.
For the full event, including Q&A on caregiver legislation, community care, VASRD updates, and burn pits legislation, check out the video embed below: