Requests for disability pay by veterans have ballooned during the past five years, overloading many doctors who evaluate the claims and increasing the possibility of fraud, according to current and former VA staff and government watchdogs.
From fiscal 2009 to 2013, the number of medical disability claims received by the Veterans Benefits Administration--a branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs--climbed 44%, while the number of doctors called upon to evaluate the claims rose only 22%, according to the VA.
"Claims are coming in a lot faster than what the VA is able to handle," said Daniel Bertoni, a director at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which investigates federal spending. A March 2013 GAO report found that claims jumped 29% from 2009 to 2011 but the agency processed only 6% more.
A VA spokeswoman said its processing of claims is "within standards" for both time and quality. She said the agency contracts with additional employees when needed and also can call upon other VA clinicians to help process claims "without delay."
Concerns over whether benefits are being properly vetted come as disability payments rose to more than $53 billion in 2013, up from about $35 billion in 2009, roughly a 53% increase. The VA expects to pay out over $60 billion in 2014, according to the agency.
Regulators have seen evidence that fraud is slipping through. The VA's Office of the Inspector General says it investigates only a small percentage of complaints it receives about possible false claims, but that "stolen valor" arrests--cases that involve false claims of military service or disability--are on the rise, with 72 arrests so far in 2014, up 71% since 2009.
Earlier this year, a veteran rated by a VA doctor as having near-complete blindness was arrested and convicted of fraud after he was observed driving on a daily basis, according to a May report issued by the VA's inspector general.
Another IG investigation, published in July, reported that a veteran receiving $7,500 a month in disability for loss of use of both legs had been seen "ambulating freely" and "rolling hay bales." He was convicted, sentenced to two years in jail and ordered to pay partial restitution.
The VA spokeswoman declined to comment.
Many soldiers returning to civilian life have legitimate claims to disability compensation. Some who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered serious physical injuries and mental disruptions. But the increased workload raises the risk that each case gets less time and attention.
The growing cost of disability payments is just one of many problems confronting the VA. A scandal over wait times at VA hospitals--a separate division from the benefits sector--brought bipartisan calls for reform in Congress.
Legislation passed in July granted the VA $5 billion to improve veteran access to its services. In a recent news conference, newly appointed VA Secretary Robert McDonald said that "tens of thousands" of additional medical staff were needed.
A spokeswoman said the agency was assessing how the new hires would be allocated across different functions--including whether more benefits examiners should be hired.
The benefits caseload grew, in part, because of a 2010 policy designed to encourage more veterans to file for claims related to post-traumatic stress disorder, a change that eliminated the requirement for proof of a traumatizing event.
In the past 10 years, the number of veterans receiving disability compensation for PTSD more than tripled, while recipients for mental disorders of all types more than doubled, the VA says.
"When you're doing that many cases, you can't possibly go through them with any degree of comprehensiveness," said Francis Gilbert, a psychologist who worked at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Medford, Ore., until 2011.
Of the 919,500 disability applicants who had served in the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, 845,000--or nearly 92%--received compensation.
When Dr. Gilbert's office increased the number of VA examinations conducted each week as the caseload rose, he said he worked weekends to keep up without compromising quality. After taking early retirement three years ago, he said associates in the field have told him the problem has only worsened.
The VA declined to comment on Mr. Gilbert's caseload, citing privacy.
According to a GAO report released in June, some examiners spent 15 minutes completing an evaluation that, if done correctly, should have taken multiple hours. A 2011 survey by the VA found that 85% of VA professionals "never" or "rarely" conducted additional tests designed to better diagnose PTSD.
Benefits examiners also can't use publicly available information to see if an applicant is able to work. An internal VA statement from December 2012, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, prohibits examiners from the "use of personal information about a veteran or service member found on the Internet or through social media" in evaluating a veteran's claim.
In a statement, the VA said such information is prohibited because it isn't verified.