Addressing Legionnaires during their 2013 Washington Conference, the Department of Veterans Affairs under secretary for benefits, Allison Hickey, said, "We did absolutely the right thing by our Vietnam vets by doing 260,000 claims" for recently added presumptive conditions for Agent Orange exposure. "It took 37 percent of my work for to do it over two years," which slowed VA's work in processing other disability claims already in its system.
Hickey stressed the importance of getting more fully developed claims (FDCs) to VA regional offices. "FDCs can be a game changer," Hickey said. "But I know I'm asking a lot of you -- I also believe that we're all in this together."
Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission, said she is confident the FDC process will help VA to reduce the disability claims backlog. "That's why The American Legion is taking the lead in ensuring that VA claims are processed correctly under the FDC program," Jones said.
The Legion's accredited service officers (more than 2,600 nationwide) will also have the opportunity for more training, Jones said, "so they know how those FDCs should be documented, and are delivering top-quality claims that VA can process quickly and reduce the backlog. We want our veterans to get the maximum benefits available in a timely fashion."
Currently, about 3 percent of disability claims nationwide are fully developed. Hickey said VA is pushing to increase that figure to 20 percent.
"I'd appreciate your leadership in taking a position on this, that you are going to go after this, and you're going to lead this nation ... in moving forward on 20 percent disability claims," Hickey said. "I'm committed to doing those, and doing those fast."
More than 54,000 FDC claims have already been processed since last year, with an average processing time of 108 days.
Hickey said that VA would get more than 4 million new claims in the next three years. While she warned that the claims backlog still might increase for a time before it starts to subside, she also reported some good news:
• For the last three years in a row, more than 1 millions claims have been completed: 1.1 million in fiscal 2010, 1.03 million in 2011 and 1.05 million in 2012.
• VA has seen a 36-percent budget increase since 2008, which has had a lasting impact on veterans, military families and survivors.
Following her presentation, Hickey took several questions from the audience, including one from American Legion Past National Commander Ron Conley. He noted that aid and attendance/pension claims backlog was "getting lost in this discussion," and wanted to know VA's strategy for reducing it.
Hickey said that VA "had a problem in the old days with the pension claims getting buried underneath compensation claims, when we did not have them centrally accounted for -- frankly, they took a backburner to the mountains of compensation claims that were rising."
But recently, VA made an agreement with Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service to get data from them in a much more timely manner. As a result, VA has been able to dedicate an additional 100 full-time employees to work on Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.
Hickey said the requirement for survivors of deceased veterans to reapply for pension benefits needed to be eliminated. "It's time to do something about that," she said. "But it's going to take a little legislation, and somebody's going to have to help me with that."
Dr. Robert Petzel, VA's under secretary for health; and Steve Muro, under secretary for memorial affairs, also addressed the Legionnaires, many of whom are members of the organization's VA&R Commission.
Petzel provided an update on the Veterans Health Administration, which is now emphasizing a patient-driven model for health-care delivery. Part of that strategy is being implemented by Patient-Aligned Care Teams (PACTs) that are helping veterans take the lead in shaping their own health care.
The delivery of medical care is moving into new era, Petzel noted: "e-connected health.", with cell phones, mobile apps, telehealth, secure communications and tele-home health playing even greater roles in the future.
Petzel said that future VA health care would be based on a key question: "How can we help you live the life you want to live?"
Muro opened his presentation with details on the dedication of a monument to the crew of the USS Monitor, the famous Civil War-ironclad that battled the Confederate ironclad Virginia (also known as the Merrimac) off Hampton Roads in March 1862. The Monitor was lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras in 1864. When the ship's turret was recently raised, the remains of two crewmen were discovered inside.
The memorial was dedicated last December at Hampton National Cemetery in Virginia. The two crewmen will be buried as unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
Muro reported to the Legion that the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) had recently completed an audit of all 3.2 million grave sites in its 131 cemeteries. The review verified the placement of remains, headstones and markers -- with an error rate of .0003 percent.
More than 74 percent of NCA employees are veterans, the highest percentage of any agency (including 406 veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars).