WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Veterans Administration's handling of disability claims has seen improvements and setbacks, a congressional watchdog said Wednesday.
Sen. Daniel Akaka says, "Our goal is to provide veterans with accurate and timely resolution to their cases."
"Over the past several years, VA disability claims workloads at both the initial and appellate levels have improved in some areas and worsened in others," the Government Accountability Office said in a report.
The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee asked the GAO to present its preliminary findings on the processing of disability claims, which were under discussion at a committee hearing.
"Our goal is to provide veterans with accurate and timely resolution to their cases," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the committee's chairman.
Ranking member Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said, "For the men and women who have served and sacrificed for our nation, they deserve a system that meets their needs without hassles or delays."
Along with a GAO representative, the hearing invited testimony from the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, a professor and an official from the Disabled American Veterans.
The GAO report said the number of initial claims the VA annually completes has increased from the 1999 to 2008 fiscal years. But it says the number of pending claims at year's end has grown during the same time period.
The review cites "increases in disability claims received, growing complexity of claims, court decisions and changes in regulation."
There have been mixed results for claims workloads at the appellate level. The number of resolved claims has increased from 2003 to 2008, but it took an average 96 days longer to resolve appeals during that same time period.
"One factor that affects workloads at the appellate level is the submission of new evidence or claims that must be evaluated," the report said.
The report said the VA has worked to improve the handling of claims but said the results of those efforts "is not yet known."
It mentions an increase in staff from 2005 to 2009, "which has helped to increase the total number of decisions VA issues annually." At the same time, training and staff integration challenges could cause a "short-term" decline in productivity
"In addition, VA has established 15 resource centers to which it redistributes claims and appeals for processing from backlogged regional offices. Although VA has not collected data to evaluate the effect of its workload redistribution efforts, these efforts may ultimately increase the timeliness and consistency of VA's decisions," the report said.
The VA is starting a pilot program with the Pentagon "to perform joint disability evaluations that has the potential to streamline the disability process for prospective veterans."
The VA also is reviewing other potential programs -- "targeting certain claims for fast-track processing and leveraging technology."