On April 19, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced a new initiative that would expedite the processing of benefits claims that have been pending for more than two years; about 200,000 claims pending for more than a year would subsequently be handled in the same way.
VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey reported to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs at a May 22 hearing that 51.4 percent of the 67,000 older claims have already been resolved since the 60-day initiative began. But she said, "None of this, for us, is about making our numbers look better. This, for us, is about the mission that we need to drive all the way home" when it comes to defeating the VA claims backlog.
While The American Legion supports such efforts to reduce the backlog, it still has some serious concerns about the April 19 initiative, which it shared in written testimony at a May 22 hearing held by the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Ultimately, the disability claims process is supposed to be inherently pro-claimant, with the best interest of the veterans held paramount. The Legion has been working with its network of over 2,600 accredited service officers to receive real-time feedback of what is transpiring in the field.
One of the chief concerns the Legion has with VA's initiative is the number of personnel it will need to achieve its goal. VA's plan appears to require all rating veteran service representatives (RVSRs) and the majority of veteran service representatives (VSRs) will be devoted solely to this project, and decision review officers (DROs) will be diverted from appeals to work these claims as well.
While assurances have been made that certain veteran groups will still receive priority, all other work has been tabled to devote resources to this initiative, and Legion service officers have expressed concerned that VA may be overreacting. Claims being worked on one day will be suddenly set aside, even if they are ready to rate, and delayed until the oldest claims can be completed.
In the interest of addressing the older cases, a claim that requires something as minor as a signature in order to be processed for payment to the veteran may now sit on the shelf needlessly for months. The American Legion believes there must be a better way to address this process, rather than by suspending work on some claims while diverting resources to others. Even a skeleton crew finishing last-minute work on nearly completed claims would help to ameliorate this problem.
The American Legion also testified that a systemic problem may be raised by the conversion of all claims to the electronic Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) format. While the Legion fully supports the transition to VBMS, all VA Regional Offices are not prepared for such a move. Some offices are being forced to handle claims with VBMS without the proper preparation and roll out, which creates problems for service officers trying to help veterans with their claims.
At some Regional Offices, The American Legion is receiving reports of claims being decided and sent out for scanning before its service officers are allowed to review the file for appeals determination. If Legion service officers can't access the full file and analyze the rating, veterans are at a disadvantage for their appeals. In order for the process to be truly fair, everyone must have access to all the information. The scanning process alone adds two weeks to a month to the wait-time before a service officer can review the file. If the VA Regional Office is not yet fully equipped to use VBMS, then filing a review will be more difficult.
Overall, VA's new claims initiative is a positive step forward in addressing systemic problems in the benefits system. But ensuring that veterans are not affected negatively by an emphasis on older claims is something that will bear close scrutiny throughout the coming months. The American Legion hopes to work closely with both VA and Congress to ensure the ultimate outcome of this program is in the best interest of the veterans community.
During her testimony, Hickey pointed out to the committee that VA handles 5,000 pieces of paper every day, and that 4.4 million paper records have accumulated at VA Regional Offices. "It is really easy to lose one claim sometime," she said.
One way that veterans can cut the wait-times for their claims is to use VA's eBenefits system online. Documentation for claims can be directly uploaded into the system. While traditional claims can sometimes take more than a year to process, eBenefits claims take an average of about 80 days - even faster than the 120-day average for fully developed claims (FDCs).
Hickey said she is working closely with the Department of Defense (DoD) on a plan to transfer 100 percent of a servicemember's medical records to VA upon separation from active duty. "(DoD has) committed to a June 1 deadline, to get all inpatient, outpatient, TRICARE records - everything that is pertinent." If DoD can find a way to provide those records before separation, "that's even better."
VA wants 20 percent of the claims it receives this year to be FDCs, then 30 percent for next year and 40 percent for 2015. The American Legion has been working with VA on its FDC program since last December, and has been giving its 2,600-plus service officers additional training for compiling FDCs.
Hickey said that VA's estimated 10,000 employees who handle claims have improved the quality of their work during a time when the department was facing exceptional challenges. In fact, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has processed about 30,000 more claims than it did at this point last year, according to Diana Rubens, VBA's deputy under secretary for field operations.
When told by one committee member that VA needs to reduce its use of acronyms and jargon, Hickey replied that she often told her staff, "Quit talking in lawyer talk, and get rid of the gobbledygook - just tell veterans what we need to tell them."