Question:What is The American Legion doing about the backlog of disability claims at the VA?
A lot. The American Legion (TAL) has several resolutions that address the VA disability claims backlog, and our Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division has been intimately involved with every step of the process. Through our resolutions, our national network of veteran service officers, and site inspections conducted through our System Worth Saving initiative, now in its 10th year, The American Legion is actually helping VA to reduce the back log.
The reason that the backlog became so unwieldy is complicated, and a variety of factors helped contribute to the excessive number of claims that remain unprocessed in a timely manner.
Some of those factors include:
The growing complexity of the average claim.
More claims being introduced due to recently approved presumptive illness categories (supported by TAL) that automatically recognize a service connection to Agent Orange exposure.
Lack of cooperation between VA and DoD, especially in developing an integrated electronic health record system.
The fact that VA is still processing paper-based claims.
A high rejection rate due to claims that are missing documentation.
There are certainly other contributing factors, but these are the major reasons that claims are taking so long to process. The good news is, the backlog is shrinking. Following an all time high of over 600,000 claims in March, Secretary Shinseki announced last week that the backlog had dropped below 540,000 and reiterated that he is still confident that his agency will reach their goal of having the backlog eradicated by 2015.
To touch briefly on your question – TAL has formally supported several pieces of legislation to address the backlog, has testified before congress on several occasions since January, providing suggestions, updates, and detailed plans for addressing the problem. We have worked closely with VA and the employee union that serves VA workers to introduce processes that more accurately track their successful work ethic, and offsets their “work credit” for claims that are improperly processed.
The American Legion is also partially responsible for contributing to the backlog by effectively lobbying for VA determinations that sought to properly compensate veterans of the Vietnam war exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides, who subsequently developed life-threatening illnesses that have been proven to stem from such exposure. As a matter of fact, that effort alone resulted in nearly 300,000 claims being filed retroactively, most of which have all been processed.
One of the most frustrating problems TAL deals with is the complete lack of cooperation, lip service, and waste of hundreds of millions of dollars between VA and DoD. Without getting too deeply into it, VA and DoD need to come together on a comprehensive and meaningful solution (not a plan, not a strategy, but a definite solution) to address their inability to seamlessly communicate electronically when it comes to the health records of veterans and servicemembers. What should be an achievable goal has turned into a multi-decade power struggle between the two largest agencies in the federal government.
As our nations “goes green”, VA too, is trying to become more efficient by digitizing their claims process. Last month, VA launched the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) in every region in the country. The VBMS system can take all types of electronic documents and compile them into an electronic portfolio that is searchable, editable, and tractable, and will greatly expedite the review and adjudication process. TAL lobbied for these advancements and the money to fund them.
Claims rejected due to missing documents or clerical errors account for a large number of claims. The American Legion has taken the lead in working with VA on its new Fully Developed Claims (FDC) program. Essentially, we are participating in a program that many of our service officers have been doing all along anyway, making sure that every claim processed by an American Legion accredited representative is accurate, requires no further documentation, and is ready for a VA claims adjudicator to review it and make a rating decision.
So, as you can see, The American Legion is fully vested in helping to eliminate the claims backlog, and through our lobbying efforts, programs, and site visits to VA regional offices, we are holding VA accountable for their work, and also trying to be part of the solution -- not just a sideline critic.