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Military officers group helps veterans in filing for benefits

Buttons on display at the Military Officers Association of America headquarters announce the organization's new claims assistance efforts. MOAA was formally recognized by VA officials as a veterans service organization on Jan. 9.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – For the first time in four years, a new national advocacy group has stepped up to help veterans prepare their benefits paperwork and reduce the VA’s still problematic claims backlog.

The Military Officers Association of America was formally recognized as a veterans service organization this week, the first time a national group has earned that distinction since 2009. The move authorizes the group to handle benefits claim paperwork on behalf of veterans, assisting them with document collection and case management.

MOAA officials said they plan to start out small, handling at most a few thousand cases this year.

But the addition of a new national VSO is much larger symbolic news, a recognition by the department and veterans advocates that significant work still lies ahead in fixing the claims backlog.

“We just felt like we couldn’t stay on the sidelines on this anymore,” said Norb Ryan, MOAA president. “Even with all the great help out there already, there is still a lot of work to get done.”

The claims backlog -- the number of disability cases pending longer than 125 days -- peaked last spring at more than 611,000 cases, but dropped by more than a third by the end of 2013. VA officials have promised to zero out those overdue claims by the end of 2015.

About 1 million new claims came to the department in 2013, and officials expect that number to rise again. VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said about 60 percent of those are reviewed by VSOs before department staffers handle them.

That leaves tens of thousands of cases that arrive without any outside help. Typically, those cases take months longer to process because of missing medical documents, incomplete forms and other paperwork slowdowns.

“It’s not designed to be complicated,” Hickey said. “It’s just a complex system by its nature.”

So the department relies on outside groups to help simplify the process.

VSO officials can walk claimants through the process before they submit their cases, pointing out mistakes or time-consuming omissions. In some cases, an extra week of preparation can save months of processing time.

Larger VSOs like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion churn through tens of thousands of cases a year, and can help guarantee a fast track for many of the claims they prepare.

But even those volunteers couldn’t keep the backlog from steadily growing over the last four years. Department officials have been criticized for taking too long to implement new technology and increase staff to stay in front of the problem.

Ryan said his organization broached the idea of becoming a VSO last year, during the intense media and lawmaker focus on the backlog. The 85-year-old organization -- it changed its name from the Retired Officers Association in 2003 -- hadn’t handled claims work, but quickly hired two full-time staff members and began the VA accreditation process.

VA in recent years has recognized several state veterans programs with VSO status, but has added no national ones since the White House made its 2009 pledge to end the backlog.

Even with the backlog heading downward, Ryan said MOAA officials believe they need to be involved in the claims assistance.

“We’ve never going to handle as many claims as the larger VSOs,” he said. “But, as an officers group, we feel like it’s important to set an example, and remind people there is still a need.”

The group has trained seven members as volunteers to help with the caseload. More than a dozen veterans with cases approached MOAA within days of the VSO-status announcement Jan. 9. Ryan said dozens more have offered to lend their legal and administrative skills.

Mike Mahler, a 26-year Air Force veteran, said he signed up as a volunteer in part because of his own disability claims experience.

When he retired 20 years ago, he handled his own paperwork and got a 10 percent disability rating from the VA. Three years ago, after a conversation with friends, he consulted with Disabled American Veterans volunteers who helped him increase that to 50 percent.

“That’s what I hope we can do for people,” Mahler said. “If we can steer them in the right direction, maybe they won’t have to go back three or four times to fix the mistakes. We can help them get it right the first time.”

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane

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