Disabled veterans who have been waiting more than a year for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to deliver them disability benefits are going to see some action.
The VA has come up with a triage system to prioritize claims caught in its backlog for a year or longer. The VA expects to knock off 250,000 claims within six months.
In a recent press release, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said, “Too many Veterans wait too long for a decision, and this has never been acceptable. That is why we are implementing an aggressive plan to eliminate the backlog in 2015. This initiative is the right thing to do now for Veterans who have waited the longest.”
VA Backlog Challenge
The VA has been under fire recently for failing to transition to a paperless disability claims processing system fast enough to keep pace with the demand for benefits.
Claims are pouring in, not only from new veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but also from Vietnam and Gulf War veterans who, because of policy changes, are claiming benefits for illnesses identified as presumptively connected to their military service.
Ending the Wait
The new plan will identify older claims and make provisional decisions based on available evidence so that veterans can get benefits right away. Veterans will also have a year to submit additional evidence that could change a denial decision or support an increase in benefits that would be retroactive from the date the claim was initially filed. If no further evidence is provided within that year, the rating decision is final. Veterans always have the option of appealing final decisions.
VA’s Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said, “Issuing provisional decisions not only provides Veterans with applicable benefits much more quickly, but also gives them an additional one-year safety net to submit further evidence should it become available. Our door will remain open and if a Veteran has additional evidence, their case will be fast tracked.”
VA’s goal is to totally eliminate the disability claims backlog, currently hovering around 900,000, by 2015. Getting the disability claims process operating flawlessly online is how the VA intends to decrease claims processing time to 125 days. It currently takes 286 days to process disability claims, though the VA expects there will be a temporary increase in that time due to the focus on processing older claims.
Will it Work?
Chairman Jeff Miller, of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs said in a statement about the plan, “While this new approach sounds promising, we will be monitoring it closely to make sure it’s good policy rather than just good PR…VA has a responsibility to make sure it doesn’t use this program as an excuse for letting average claims processing times continue their steady ascent indefinitely…we expect VA to fully explain to Congress precisely how this program will improve the department’s claims processing efforts and help chip away at the mountain of backlogged benefits claims.”