The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is pushing hard to deliver on its promise of taking care of our country’s growing population of veterans, including those with disabling conditions. As troops in Afghanistan are preparing to come home – 23,000 by the end of this summer and the remaining 68,000 by December 2014–it is certain that many will be relying on VA disability benefits. The push is to transform a cumbersome and backlogged disability claims processing system into the 21st century information technology (IT) era. This will allow for faster processing and more efficient tracking of veterans disability claims.

Introducing the Veterans Benefit Management System

A major component of the IT transformation plan is the Veterans Benefit Management System, an automated tracking system for processing claims. At its core, is “rules-based management technology” designed to speed things up by cutting back on paperwork. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki calls the system “an important milestone…of processing all disability claims within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy level in 2015.” It is currently being tested at 12 VA regional offices and is expected to be fully operational in 2013.

Over a Million VA Claims

Just how many disability claims are backlogged? Currently, there are 897,556 new claims waiting for decisions with 65 percent of them pending for more than four months. Then there are 256,000 claims in appeals waiting more than four years. That’s about 1.1 million claims pending. The leap from paper to digital is necessary and overdue.

Veterans Advocates Raise Concerns

It is assumed that, younger veterans will be attracted to an online system for applying for disability benefits. According to a VA survey, 98.2 percent of veterans who served after September 2001 use the Internet.

But what about the role of veterans service officers (VSOs) and attorneys in the online disability claims process? The electronic system currently excludes them, stirring significant contention that the convenience of applying for disability benefits online could work against veterans without the expertise of trained veterans advocates.

VSOs voiced their concerns at a recent hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the vital role of VSOs in the veterans disability claims process.

Jeffrey Hall, representing the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) said, “while the elimination of the backlog will be a welcome milestone, we must remember that eliminating the backlog is not necessarily the same goal as reforming the claims processing system, nor does it guarantee that veterans are better served . . .”

James Wear, from the Veterans of Foreign Wars said, “It is important to understand that veteran service organizations are both advocates for veterans and partners, or stakeholders, with VA. . . . we must have access to VA computer systems, records, facilities and personnel.  Without this access, we might as well stand on the curb and shout at regional office buildings.”

Paul Sullivan, representing the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates (NOVA) said,“VBA’s proposed solution does not contain a component absolutely vital to our nation’s Veterans and beneficiaries: full and immediate access to Veteran’s claim records by their attorney or agent. . . . NOVA urges Congress to mandate that VA promptly provide advocates full access to paper and electronic claim records . . . Such a system is already in place at the Social Security Administration (SSA).”

But Tom Murphy of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) says they will. “VSO involvement in our Transformation Plan is extremely important, especially as we shift from a paper-based to a paperless electronic process system. VBA is committed to providing service organization representatives with the tools to assist with this transformation.”

Delivering the Promise – and the Benefits

The question is when. It may require a mandate from Congress before it can be fully implemented, though veterans can already access the disability claims online system.

Hopefully, the Benefits Management System will streamline the application process. However, the decision-making process remains complex. And veterans advocates are key to helping veterans get the disability benefits they deserve.

Note: All representation coordinated by Alpha is provided by our employees, the Advocates, who are accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). No private organization that trains and employs accredited agents has been legally recognized by the VA for the purposes of preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims. This work must be done by the Advocates themselves and not organizations.