Over the years, I have known my share of resolutions. I'm not talking about the usual ones people make this time of year – lose weight, quit smoking, stick to a budget – but American Legion resolutions, the marching orders our members adopt to improve the lives of veterans, U.S. military personnel, families and communities everywhere.
Few topics have so frequently found their way into the Legion's portfolio of national resolutions as the backlog of undecided VA disability benefits claims. The problem is now counted in the hundreds of thousands. With veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars pouring home and re-entering civilian life, the backlog continues to grow in both volume and complexity.
Many of these veterans have multiple service-connected conditions that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Others are going to VA seeking long-awaited help for conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure, previously untreated combat stress, or service-related issues that have worsened with age.
VA and the Legion agree that all veterans deserve timely decisions about disability benefits, and that the current logjam is intolerable.
More than 2,000 American Legion service officers work every day to help veterans correctly file for their benefits. VA has piloted many promising programs to accelerate the process. VA and DoD are working together to streamline medical records management and make the most of online tools. Progress is being made, but – as VA Secretary Eric Shinseki explained last summer – nearly four million VA claims have been adjudicated since 2009, including about 1 million in 2012 alone. Claims are coming in faster than VA and our service officers can keep up.
The American Legion, VA and DoD are committed to solving this problem. VA has targeted 2015 as the year to have no claims pending more than 125 days, with 98 percent accuracy. To help, the Legion is working with VA to ensure that innovations such as the Fully Developed Claims program (www.benefits.va.gov/transformation/fastclaims ) are a success. This program reduces the need for adjudicators to provide additional instructions or request more documentation after a claim is filed and certified as complete, allowing for speedier decisions.
The Legion will also continue to provide boots-on-the-ground intelligence to help VA identify processing hang-ups throughout the country and highlight best practices at regional offices. Department service officers are working closely with VA and software programmers to strengthen technological solutions like the Veterans Benefits Management System. The Legion's Claims Coach smartphone app (www.legion.org/mobileapps ) offers veterans organizational tools, answers to questions about benefits and a directory of service officers who can help.
The claims backlog is VA's biggest challenge, and the Legion is dedicated to helping bring it under control. It's going to take a concerted effort from everyone who cares about veterans and their families to keep us from having to make the same resolutions year after year.