Thomas Murphy, acting VA Undersecretary for Benefits, addresses The American Legion's National Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission Feb. 27 during the organization's annual Washington Conference. Photo by Clay Lomneth/The American Legion

Legionnaires tasked with voicing support for appeals legislation

As American Legion leadership prepares to meet with their respective members of Congress and to watch National Commander Charles E. Schmidt deliver testimony to a joint session of the House and Senate' Veterans Affairs committees, they were reminded that The American Legion’s strong voice is needed to help pass legislation that affects 20 million veterans.

“I need you to tell members of Congress that they need to pass (the Legion-backed VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2017); that’s the bottom line,” said Thomas Murphy, interim VA undersecretary for benefits, to members of the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission on Feb. 27 during the organization’s 57th annual Washington Conference. “This is ridiculous that you have to wait five years, six years to get an appeal decided. We need this bill; it’s very important. This (bill) changes lives of veterans going forward, and it’s no cost.”

Murphy said the current inventory of veterans appeals is more than 464,000, and veterans could wait up to 10 years for a decision if no legislation is passed. If the bill is passed, veterans could receive a decision within one year of filing the appeal.

With a focus on simplifying the appeals process and improving decision wait times, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) completed 1.3 million claims in 2016 with an average decision wait time of 119 days – a reduction of 228 days from the peak of the backlog. Of those claims processed, American Legion-accredited service officers represented 804,000 of the veterans and helped acquire $10.9 billion in earned benefits.

VBA is also conducting a pilot program that gives veterans a 30-day rating decision on their claim. The Decision Ready Claims test program “puts the control in the hands of the veteran and in return the veteran gets a faster decision,” Murphy said. Part of the program involves the veteran contacting the Veterans Health Administration to get a compensation and pension exam completed, then a contractor identifies if information is missing on the claim. If it is, the claim is sent back to the veteran and if not, it gets “forwarded for award and authorization,” Murphy said.

And VHA is currently measuring veterans' wait time for access to care through survey kiosks at VA facilities. Veterans can take the survey that asks how soon they were able to receive care – responses are always, usually, sometimes or never. "What's most important is the voice of the veteran; this is how we know we are making progress,” said Dr. Carolyn Clancy, VA undersecretary for health.

Other ways VBA is improving the veterans claim experience is through modernization of its contact centers. VBA had a 60 percent block call rate for veterans trying to call its 1-800 number for assistance, which equates to a two-hour or longer wait. Murphy was happy to report that VBA’s call center now has a zero percent block call rate and the average call is answered in less than 1 minute. The solution was increasing call center staff from 700 to 1,100 employees.

“Our call volume in August was 975,000 calls. When we got the extra people in there our call volume dropped to 175,000,” Murphy said. “Do the math – the average veteran called six times a month to get through. Now, you get your phone answered in less than a minute and you get a person on the phone to answer your questions.”

Following Murphy’s presentation, interim Undersecretary for Memorial Affairs Ron Walters updated VA&R Commission members about updates with the National Cemetery Administration (NCA).

There were more than 131,600 interments in VA national cemeteries in 2016, and the administration’s plan for the next six years comprises several goals, including the opening of 18 new national cemeteries by 2021.

The new cemeteries will give veterans and their family members increased access to burial benefits; they will comprise five traditionally large cemeteries (200-300 acres), five urban and eight rural (no more than five or 10 acres). Once the new cemeteries are completed, NCA will provide new or enhanced burial access to more than 20 million veterans and their families, Walters said. To date, four of the 18 cemeteries have opened, in Montana, Nebraska and Florida (Cape Canaveral and Tallahassee).

Another goal is to increase the use of burial benefits; only about 13 to 15 percent of the veteran population is buried in a national cemetery, Walters said. NCA hopes to achieve an increase by exploring the possibility of weekend burials and promoting its pre-need eligibility program, which is currently in place.

Prior to the pre-need eligibility program, a veteran could not get an eligibility determination for burial in a national cemetery unless it was his or her time of need or a veteran had passed. “That wasn’t veteran-centric, it wasn’t consistent with private-sector practice, so we changed that,” Walters said. “It saves the family a lot of hardship and stress with end-of-life planning.”

Veterans can now get a pre-need eligibility determination by completing VA Form 40-10007 at www.cem.va.gov/cem/pre-need/index.asp.