The American Legion testified at a Feb. 5 hearing on Capitol Hill that focused on the technological transformation of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Zachary Hearn, the Legion's deputy director for benefits, appeared as a panelist before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
In its written testimony, the Legion noted that VA is "in the midst of a massive transformation" in the way it processes benefits claims for veterans in an effort "to move beyond the legacy system of paper files that threatened the physical integrity of their own buildings under the massive weight of backlogged disability claims...."
Moving forward with its Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), VA has promised that its new electronic operating environment will eliminate many problems that have caused the current claims backlog.
"The way technology impacts the office environment for VA is going to change a lot of things," Hearn told the subcommittee. But "the most important factor going forward is what changes are going to make the system better for veterans – not easier for VA."
Previoulsy, the Legion has raised concerns that VA's new electronic environment for benefits claims may create a chasm between veterans with Internet access and those without. Last October, VA proposed a rule change in the Federal Register, insisting that paper-based claims must be filed on a specific VA form, which would effectively eliminate informal claims (veterans writing their claim down on any piece of paper).
Effective dates for veterans benefits would be established by VA's standard paper form and no other document, while veterans with access to the Internet would be able to file for benefits online. Even if they submit an incomplete application, VA will recognize that date of submission as the effective date of granting benefits, as long as a veteran completes the online form within a year. Therefore, veterans who use the Internet have an advantage over those who don't and must file their claims on standard VA forms.
"Is it better for veterans to force them to use an electronic process when – according to the Census Bureau – roughly half of elderly Americans, a large and vulnerable portion of the veterans population, don’t have regular Internet access?" Hearn asked the subcommittee. "Does that make things better for veterans or easier for VA?"
Since last year, The American Legion has been helping VA reduce the claims backlog by taking the lead in promoting the Fully Developed Claims (FDC) program – helping veterans up-front with claims documentation and handing it off to VA. This program dramatically reduces processing time and gets benefits to veterans much faster.
"The veterans get their results faster," Hearn said. "That’s the ultimate win. That’s why we do this. "But the choice has to stay with the veteran. First and foremost, we have to make sure that any changes implemented are there to serve the veteran."
Ultimately, Hearn said, The American Legion is concerned that veterans’ choices and options are being sacrificed in the interest of making the claims system easier for VA to use. However, the disability claims system does not exist to serve VA; it exists to serve the veterans disabled through service to their country, Hearn said.
"We recognize the importance of technological advances to improve the VA claims process," Hearn said. "However, any process implemented must be advantageous to the veterans. We appreciate VA’s efforts to expedite the claims process, but it cannot be on the backs of veterans."
In his testimony, Hearn said that while it may be beneficial for both veterans and VA to have veterans submit claims in a certain fashion, such as through the FDC process or through the eBenefits portal, not every veteran is going to find that choice in his or her best interest or find that choice to be the one that meets a particular set of needs. There are better ways to approach channeling veterans toward the proper path for receiving benefits.
Hearn said the primary goal should be, "what’s the best way to deliver benefits to veterans who have been disabled serving their country. That, more than any number or metric, needs to be the target."
Legislation such as the "Veterans Benefits Claims Faster Filing Act" (H.R. 1809 and S.1148) provides information to veterans and allows them to make the choice that best suits their needs. Through this information, many veterans will see the benefits of applying through the FDC program or of filing electronically. Veterans will still be encouraged and channeled toward the better option, but only if it's an option that works best for a particular veteran.
Read Hearn's submitted testimony here.