October 2, 2008 – Lawmakers have high expectations that they can reduce the backlog and processing time for veterans’ benefits claims through a combination of new procedures, including two pilot projects.
The Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2008, which passed Congress on Saturday and is being prepared for submission to the White House for President Bush’s signature, pushes the Department of Veterans Affairs to use electronic filing and processing of claims to try to improve the speed of claims decisions, reduce the disparity in decisions involving similar issues and cut the number of claims decisions that end up being overturned.
The bill also creates a new authority to provide a temporary disability rating for some veterans who have severe and multiple disabilities that are not fully healed. Stabilized and unstabilized disabilities that have an impact on employment could be considered in assigning the temporary rating that would be used to provide disability compensation during the first year after leaving the military.
One of the pilot projects ordered by the compromise bill requires special, expedited treatment for disability claims where the veteran had the help of a veterans’ service officer to prepare the paperwork. This one-year test would be carried out in at least 10 regional offices.
A second pilot project, to run over three years in at least four regional office, would have processors and veterans use a checklist when submitting claims in an effort to bring more organization and uniformity to the claims process.
The bill also gives VA one year to develop a program using information technology to process claims that would allow veterans to file applications and to track the progress of their claim online.
Several provisions in the bill were drawn from a claims modernization bill sponsored by Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., that attempts to improve training for VA workers who are processing claims and to change how employees are evaluated.
“Improving VA procedures so that claims can be processed and benefits delivered quickly, fairly and accurately for our veterans, their families and their survivors is the least we can do,” said Clinton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“America’s disabled veterans cannot afford to wait a moment longer,” said Hall, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance,
Hall said processing a first-time claim by a disabled veteran can take 180 days, and even longer if a veteran appeals the initial decision. The long processing time is part of the reason there is a backlog of about 400,000 claims awaiting a decision by VA.
Over the last two years, members of the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees have tried to push VA to process claims more quickly while also complaining about the rate of mistakes in claims and evidence that similar claims are decided differently between VA regional offices.
In the report accompanying the benefits bill, the two committees say they want a process that is perceived as fair by veterans, but realize “it is unreasonable to expect states to have exactly the same average compensation or percentage of veterans receiving compensation.”
The bill requires a report – due one year from now – that looks at variances in benefits between regional offices and between veterans of different states to determine whether the differences are justified.