The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs heard testimony from Verna Jones of The American Legion during a Sept. 11 update on how well the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) program for fully developed benefits claims (FDCs) is being implemented.
Because they require no further documentation from claimants, FDCs move through VA’s claims processing system much faster than traditional claims, thus helping to reduce the backlog. According to VA, nearly 150,000 FDCs have been received during fiscal 2013. So far, more than 25 percent of all claims received since July 1 have been FDCs. As of Sept. 9, the backlog stood at about 457,000 claims – down from 633,000 last March.
Jones, director of the The American Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, told the subcommittee the Legion has taken a leading role in the FDC program because it was such a natural fit for its service officers, who "are already trained to put together as much of the information, up front, for every claim for VA. They’re doing the same work that we’ve always done, but now the VA is moving faster" and veterans are involved in the processing of their own claims.
When VA gets these FDCs, Jones said, they can do a better job "because they have everything they know the veteran wants to give to them and they know the claim is in good order."
The American Legion has spearheaded the FDC program since last December, visiting VA regional offices in Pittsburgh, Denver, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Nashville, Oakland, Calif.; Reno, Nev.; and Togus, Maine. During each site visit, teams of Legion experts reviewed the FDC implementation process, identified best practices, and provided additional training to its service officers.
From these visits, Jones said the Legion has found the FDC program works best when all the stakeholders buy into the process. "If the VA leadership in an office does not believe in the program, then you’re not going to see as much success," Jones said. "By the same token, we’ve had to do a lot of work with our own service officers. We looked at the FDC claims, and we found training opportunities to make sure that we were giving the VA a better-quality product to work with."
When FDCs are submitted, many veterans get decisions on their claims within 125 days – the official time limit before a claims goes into backlogged status. Jones told the subcommittee she has seen some FDCs adjudicated in less than 90, 60 and even 30 days.
"We’re working hard to commit our service officers to this program, because it gets better results for veterans," Jones said. "And we’re hoping that VA is making the same push to their leadership, to get more consistent results from all of the (regional) offices."
While the VA regional office in Indianapolis was noted by Jones as a model of outstanding work, she said the Baltimore office "was aggressively excluding veterans from the FDC program.... They spent more time trying to exclude a Pentagon 9/11 veteran out of the FDC program than the time it would have taken to adjudicate that claim."
Are FDCs going to help America’s veterans? Jones’ answer to the subcommittee was "Yes." But some things can be done better, such as including veterans of the National Guard and reserve in the program.
"The last decade has certainly shown the men and women of the National Guard and reserve are just as involved in defending this nation as the active-duty troops," Jones said. "We should be working to make sure they don’t get left out."
To read Jones' written testimony, click here.