Legion addresses benefits claims with VA

Legislative Division staff met with Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (SCVA) staff, as well as members of several other veteran service organizations, to discuss VA’s progress with the transformation of the claims benefit system. As VA transitions to the paperless environment of the Veterans Benefits Management System throughout the year, the operational procedures are being changed in the regional offices to better support the new system. SCVA staff was collecting preliminary information about how that transformation is taking place in the field in advance of a hearing Wednesday on VA’s current operating status regarding the claims system.

The American Legion noted the positive success of VA’s efforts to increase the speed of processing for "fully developed claims," claims that have much of the material provided in advance by the veteran, usually in conjunction with a skilled service officer from an organization such as The American Legion. Average processing time for these fully developed claims is down to about 120 days, which falls under Secretary Eric Shinseki’s goal of no claim taking longer than 125 days to process. Other organizations praised VA’s commitment to the digital process,and the agency’s receptiveness to input from service organizations.

However, there are inherent cultural issues within the VA offices that are problematic for the Legion and others. Absent clear direction otherwise, the attention to detail necessary to get claims done right the first time is consistently a problem with VA staff. There is still far too much variation in implementation of policies and a lack of commitment to training on a regional level. No matter the intent of VA’s central office, if the regional offices don’t place priority on consistency, it doesn’t happen.

Possible legislative fixes varied. When cultural problems exist – for example, getting VA employees to execute their job according to all of the current statutes – it is difficult to find a way to legislate the employees into compliance. However, The American Legion argues that VA must change the way it counts work credit to produce a change in the behavior of the employees. As it stands now, VA employees receive the same credit for work regardless of whether or not the claim is decided accurately. With no negative credit, there is little incentive to get the claim correct, and all of the incentive is to turn out raw numbers. The Legion argues that by implementing a work credit system that takes into account not only positive credit for completion of a claim, but also negative credit for claims found to be processed in error, employees would have incentive to work not only swiftly, but also carefully. By avoiding errors, lengthy appeals would be eliminated from the system, and the backlog would be reduced.

The SCVA staff intends to hold quarterly meetings with the service organizations to stay abreast of developments as VA completes the final year of rollout of the VBMS processing environment.

Read The American Legion’s resolution on VA’s work-rate standard here.

In other news:

Homelessness: In accordance with the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) published a notice in the March 1 Federal Register identifying federal buildings and other property HUD has reviewed for suitability for use to assist the homeless. The properties were reviewed using information provided to HUD by federal agencies or by GSA regarding their inventories of excess or surplus property. The list includes buildings and properties in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Nebraska and Oregon.

Properties listed as suitable/available will be available exclusively for homeless use for a period of 60 days from the date of this notice. Where property is described as for "off-site use only," recipients of the property will be required to relocate the building to their own site at their own expense. Homeless assistance providers interested in any such property should send a written expression of interest to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), addressed to Theresa Rita, Division of Property Management, Program Support Center, HHS, room 5B-17, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20857; or call (301) 443-2265.

HHS will mail to the interested provider an application packet, which will include instructions for completing the application. For details concerning the processing of applications, the reader is encouraged to refer to the interim rule governing this program, 24 CFR part 581.

Resolution No. 306 (passed at the 94th National Convention) states that The American Legion:

• Renewed its commitment to assisting homeless veterans and their families.

• Continues to support the efforts of public and private sector agencies and organizations with the resources necessary to aid homeless veterans and their families.

• Seeks and supports any legislative or administrative proposal that will provide medical, rehabilitative, and employment assistance to homeless veterans and their families.

Jobless rate: The national unemployment rate is 7.7 percent, as of February 2013, the lowest rate since President Barack Obama took office. For Iraq War veterans, the unemployment rate is 9.4 percent. Currently, the unemployment rate for Iraq War women veterans is 11.6 percent (down from last month of 15.7 percent).

Credentialing: South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard on March 6 signed four bills dealing with veterans issues during a ceremony in the Capitol. The bills approve special license plates for veterans with disabilities, allow veterans to receive credit for certain military training and expertise and expedite licenses. The Department of South Dakota played a critical role in the passing of this legislation as The American Legion continues to tackle military credentialing state-by-state.

Women veterans: The American Legion’s Washington office will host a "pitch party" sponsored by the Women Veteran Entrepreneur Corps (WVEC) on March 14 from noon to 2 p.m. The event will invite women veteran business owners and entrepreneurs to the Legion’s K Street building for a networking and "pitch" session, where feedback can be given on business and entrepreneurial ideas. The event is free, and any woman veteran who owns a business or aspires to own a business or become an entrepreneur can attend. Those planning to attend should email an RSVP to Harvetta Spann at wvec@countmein.org.

Hearing postponed: American Legion field service representative Roscoe Butler will testify before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the topic of patient wait times for appointments in the VA health-care system. The hearing, originally scheduled for March 6, has been rescheduled to March 14.

Budget cuts: Large and sudden U.S. spending cuts and an unstable budget environment promise long-term damage to a critical segment of the defense industrial base, the Defense Department’s top maintenance official recently told a congressional panel. John Johns, deputy assistant secretary of defense for maintenance policy and programs, testified last week before the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, along with officials from industry professional associations.

Read more.

Resolution No. 55: Protecting the Defense Budget

Resolution No. 63: Rebuild America’s Defense Industrial Base

Issues in Mali: Somalia and Mali represent different stages of the challenges for U.S. Africa Command, Army Gen. Carter F. Ham told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently. Along with allies in East Africa, Africom developed a strategy that has seriously weakened the terror group al-Shabaab, Ham said. "Somalia still faces significant political, economic and security challenges, but the Somali people now have something they haven’t had for a very long time: hope for a better future," he said. "And I’m proud that we’ve played a role in that. The loss of four Americans in Libya and three more in Algeria underscores the threat presented by this growing network."

Read more.

Resolution No. 82: Policy on Africa

POW/MIA Update

• Cpl. James R. Hare, U.S. Army, 2nd Infantry Division, was lost on Feb. 13, 1951, near the South Korean town of Hoengsong. He was accounted for Feb. 9, 2013.

• Pfc. Bobby L. Byars, U.S. Army, 31st Regimental Combat Team (RCT), was lost on Dec. 12, 1950, near the Chosin Reservoir near Sinhung-ri, South Hamgyong Province, in North Korea. He was accounted for Feb. 12, 2013.

SWS visit: National Headquarters staff members Jacob Gadd and Roscoe Butler will conduct a System Worth Saving visit at the Coatesville VA Medical Center on March 12-13 to discuss the quality of health care that women veterans are receiving from the Coatesville VA Medical Center. In advance of the site visit, they will conduct a town hall meeting in Spring City, Pa.; the town hall meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. March 11 at American Legion Post 602, located at 25 N. Main St. in Spring City, Pa.

Benefits claims: During the week ending March 1, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals reached dispositions on 144 American Legion represented appeals. Of those dispositions, 70.8 percent of the denials were overturned with outcomes favorable to the veteran. In 38 cases, the board granted benefits outright after considering The American Legion’s arguments. In 64 cases, The American Legion was able to point out errors in the development of the veteran’s claims that mandated corrective action under the law. Of the total number of dispositions, 37 (25.7 percent) were outright denials.