VA unveils new process to eliminate backlog; critics await results
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 11, 2012
WASHINGTON — Express service is on the way for tens of thousands of pending veterans benefits claims.
Veterans Affairs officials on Wednesday announced plans for a new processing model designed to get through those claims more efficiently, including an “express lane” for simpler or fully documented claims.
The most complicated packets will be turned over to the department’s own version of a special operations team, which will sort through compensation questions for issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma, prisoner of war status or homelessness.
VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said the changes – combined with new training programs and the completion of a massive claims project related to Agent Orange illnesses – will put the department on track to eliminate the claims backlog by the end of 2015.
Critics remain skeptical of those promises.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “Until we see results and not just ink on paper, this is just another announcement.”
The VA has about 884,000 pending compensation and pension claims. Almost two-thirds of those have been waiting for action for more than 125 days, longer than the department’s target.
Hickey said the new segmented-lanes approach to processing claims will help increase both the speed and accuracy of claims specialists, boosting the department’s output by up to 200,000 cases when it’s fully implemented.
Sixteen regional offices will implement the new process over the next three months. But it will take until the end of 2013 to get all 56 regional offices on the new plan.
“There is a learning curve for our folks … and we need to deliberately work into that new process,” Hickey said.
But lawmakers and veterans groups have lamented the slow progress on the claims backlog, which has skyrocketed in recent years.
VA officials blame that on the workload associated with the Agent Orange claims – almost 40 percent of the department’s processors were reassigned to handle those cases in recent years – and the complexity of newer claims.
Hickey said the average new compensation claim by a veteran contains between nine and 15 medical conditions, and about 60 percent of their pending caseload is from veterans resubmitting old claims.
Veteran Douglas Briggs throws up his arms in frustration as he makes his feelings known about the failure of the VA to process claims for disability on May 21, 2012. Next to him, trying to calm the noisy crowd of vets is Willie Clark, VA Western Regional Director in San Francisco, California.
Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times/MCT