November 27, 2007 – The Department of Veterans Affairs hopes to one day harness the power of technology to speed the processing of veterans’ benefits claims, but it is wary of ideas for quickly reducing the claims backlog, which is hovering around 400,000.
That has not kept some radical suggestions from being made.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, suggests that the VA approve, with no questions, most Agent Orange-related claims of Vietnam veterans, allowing more time to concentrate on new claims from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Filner said the long wait for receiving disability and survivor benefits is one of the most vexing problems facing the VA, which has had only modest success in whittling the backlog by hiring more claims processors.
Expanded payments would include disputed claims of Navy veterans who never went ashore in Vietnam but believe they have herbicide-related health issues.
Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Fred Upton, R-Mich., are sponsoring a bill, the Immediate Benefits for Wounded Warriors Act, that would give partial payments to some veterans while they wait for a formal VA claims decision, which can take a year for initial claims and up to three years for appeals.
That bill, HR 4219, would apply to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans rated by the military as being 10 percent or more disabled, or who have been diagnosed by any doctor with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
They would get disability pay as if they had received a 30 percent disability rating through the formal VA ratings process. If a veteran ended up receiving a higher disability rating after the VA completed its process, he would get a backdated payment for the difference. If he ended up with a disability rated at less than 30 percent, he would not have to return any money.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said he is “very disappointed” in the VA for not coming up with more new ideas of its own.
Lamborn has introduced a bill that includes a pilot program for handling some electronic claims through automation. “This bill is not perfect,” he said. “But rather than offering a simple, out-of-hand dismissal, I would have appreciated constructive input.”
His bill is controversial; Paralyzed Veterans of America, for example, “does not believe that software exists that can replace the human element,” said Richard Daley, the group’s legislative director, at a Nov. 8 hearing of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance.
Bradley Mayes, VA’s director for compensation and pensions, said at the same hearing that the VA is “engaged in an aggressive planning” to use technology to process claims. The hope, he said, is to have a paperless claims system someday.