Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits for the Department of Veterans Affairs, testifies before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs March 13.

Partnership needed to beat the claims backlog

Strong partnerships with The American Legion and other veterans service organizations (VSOs) will play a critical role in defeating the backlog of disability claims for veterans, according to Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Hickey made the point March 13 while testifying before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs about what VA is doing to transform its claims process. In its March 18 online Monday Morning Report, VA reported it had 815,650 compensation claims pending, with 584,960 of those in backlog (pending more than 125 days). About 80,000 military pension claims are also pending for decisions.

"I continue to meet monthly with the executive directors of six national VSOs and have established quarterly stakeholder meetings with a larger group of VSOs directly affected by new processes and initiatives," Hickey told the committee. "VBA (Veterans Benefits Administration) engages these organizations for their feedback and input at the beginning stages of the various initiatives."

One key initiative Hickey is counting on receiving strong VSO support is VA’s fully developed claims (FDC) program. When an FDC is submitted to VA, it already has the necessary documentation to establish that a veteran’s illness or injury is service-connected; these kinds of claims move much more quickly through the claims process than traditional claims.

The American Legion has been assisting VA with its FDC program in recent months, sending teams of its accredited experts to help train claims processors at VA regional offices in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Baltimore; more visits are planned for Portland, Nashville and other cities.

VBA is keen on getting VSO service officers, as well as those at the state and county levels, to help veterans submit more FDCs "because of the game-changing impact this can have on claims-decision timeliness and eliminating the disability claims backlog," Hickey said. A 20-percent increase in FDC submissions nationwide, Hickey estimated, could allow VA to process an additional 70,000 claims per year and reduce the average completion time by 18 days.

Bart Stichman, joint executive director for the National Veterans Legal Services Program, said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s August 2010 decision to add three more Agent Orange presumptive conditions was "courageous." Two months after that decision was made, "VA began to issue decisions on these past claims," Stichman said. "The VA adjudicated over 146,000 of these claims by August 1, 2012."

While commending the FDC initiative, Stichman pointed out that it doesn’t apply to many veterans because their pending VA claims don’t qualify for the program. The restriction deters claimants and their representatives from using the FDC option. "This is unwise because it requires that they withhold the filing of other claims – and risk loss of months of benefits – simply to obtain a quick decision on one claims filed under the FDC process," Stichman said.

A former VA under secretary for benefits, Joseph Thompson, also testified before the committee. With America’s population of veterans gradually decreasing, "the normal expectation would be for a commensurate decline in VBA’s workload," Thompson said. "The opposite is true. Driven by the increase in claims and the growing complexity of the claims processing environment, VBA’s workload is actually increasing, and has been doing so for many years."

Overcoming the backlog, Thompson said, will require substantial transformations in VBA’s organization, culture, technology, work flow and employee skills.

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said it was important for VA to be completely transparent in its efforts to reduce the backlog. He then quoted from the department’s own backlog reduction plan: "VBA is tracking execution of its transformation plan against its key measures of performance that are tracked daily, weekly and monthly."

Burr then asked Hickey to provide the committee on a regular basis those performance metrics, "particularly the data that is not included in the Monday morning workload reports and the Aspire dashboard," Burr said. "Do I have your commitment to do that on a monthly basis?"

Hickey replied but did not answer the question directly, so Burr asked it again. Then she said, "As of last year, we are actually transparent to a fault. We have, not just to this committee, we have…."

Burr cut her off again, saying, "This is a very specific question. It is not broadly asked and I really do need a yes or no answer.… Can you provide us those (performance metrics) on a monthly basis….?"

Hickey replied that VBA would continue to provide information to the committee via its Monday Morning Report, its Aspire dashboard, annual reports and quarterly reports.

"I’ll take that as a ‘no,’" Burr said.

Later, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said, "The VSOs do so much good work. It almost seems like they do all this work, and then VA duplicates the work. And it seems like we should figure out some partnership with VSOs (so they) can help us move some of these claims because they do a lot of work on the front end that. They have about an 80 percent hit rate. That’s not a bad success rate, based on the history here."

Hickey replied by saying VBA has a strong relationship with VSOs that is "getting stronger every day … they are inside the fence line now, more than they ever have been before. And I am working very closely with them, and am very thrilled with their willingness to do fully developed claims, which, in fact, will help exactly the issue that you’re discussing."

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., will convene the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on March 20 for a hearing that will also focus on VA’s disability claims process. Only two witnesses are scheduled to testify: Hickey and Diana Rubens, VBA’s under secretary for field operations.