April 22, 2008 – Congress held a hearing last week on ways to modernize the benefits claims system at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has a backlog of 600,000 claims and counting.
Nothing unusual about that — and that’s the problem.
As the backlog swells with new claims from the still-rising tide of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lawmakers are looking for options to deal with this crisis.
It now takes an average of six months for VA to make a decision on an initial benefits claim. It takes two years to rule on appeals of the initial decisions.
VA’s response to date — hiring a small number of extra claims adjudicators — has been disappointingly timid. Bolder action is needed.
One of the most promising options, crafted by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., would have VA automatically approve simple, clear-cut claims that don’t need extensive documentation. This would leave the flesh-and-blood adjudicators to work on the more complex claims.
Former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson threw his support behind that idea last summer, making further debate irrelevant.
Other ideas include giving greater benefit of the doubt to veterans who file post-traumatic stress disorder claims, which make up an increasing proportion of the backlog, and a potential overhaul of the way VA caseworkers go about deciding claims.
With U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan showing no signs of ending soon, the backlog problem is not going to get better on its own.
Lawmakers must take concrete steps in the 2009 VA budget to deal with this problem. When they do, VA must salute smartly and get it done.
On this issue, it’s long past time to stop talking and start doing.