WASHINGTON — The Defense Department is developing more in-depth exit physicals for departing troops and lending staff to the Department of Veterans Affairs in an effort to help eliminate the massive backlog of disability claims.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said those efforts, combined with earlier department initiatives to create express service for simple claims and highly trained processing teams for complex ones, will help ease the problem in 2013 and keep the agency on track to eliminate the backlog by the end of 2015.
Progress on that promise has been slow.
Since July, when the new processing protocols were implemented, the number of disability claims pending for more than 125 days has remained stagnant, at nearly 600,000 cases. In fiscal 2012, the average VA pension or compensation claim took more than 260 days to complete.
In a news conference Thursday, Shinseki acknowledged that “veterans still wait too long for the benefits they deserve,” but he insisted that the department is on the right track to fix the problem.
The joint DOD-VA announcements came after Shinseki and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta held their latest meeting on improving collaboration between the two departments. Panetta listed the backlog as a key concern not just of the VA, but also of his department.
“We owe it to them to give them the tools they need to succeed,” he said. “In many ways, this is a national security issue. It goes to the heart of taking care of the people who fought for us.”
In recent years, the agencies have worked closely to develop plans for lifetime electronic health records for troops and veterans, shared medical facilities, and better mental health research and response.
The VA and DOD in recent months have been developing a transition program for separating servicemembers, which should be fully implemented in early 2013.
The two secretaries also said they’re working on new joint suicide prevention efforts and that they have ordered their staffs to find ways to accelerate the lifetime health records integration faster than the 2017 target.
Those plans should relieve some of the stress on VA systems as thousands of new veterans leave the military in coming years. Currently, the 1 million claims processed by the VA annually aren’t keeping up with the 1-million-plus new cases being filed.
“We will get control of the numbers,” Shinseki said. “We have both short term and long term solutions.”
Defense officials did not provide specifics on the number of military employees assisting with VA processing, or what the more thorough exit physicals will entail.
Panetta and Shinseki said better medical information on veterans before they leave the military will simplify claims later on, hopefully speeding up the process.
VA officials said the extra information will be especially helpful with severely wounded servicemembers, who often have multiple injuries and much more complicated paperwork.