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Hagan: VA claims backlog improves, but appeals process a problem

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said Tuesday that progress has been made in easing a claims backlog at the Winston-Salem regional office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

But Hagan said she stills wants to find out why there hasn’t been more progress on an effort that began in 2004 to streamline the processing of veterans’ benefit applications.

What do you think of the progress made regarding the VA backlog?

“Because the VA and each branch (of the armed services) operate on different data systems, the medical records have to be delivered on paper,” Hagan said. She called that one of the biggest logjams in the system and the source of most of the delays in getting benefit applications processed.

“Seventy percent of the time is time waiting just to get the paperwork,” Hagan said. “This is unacceptable.”

In March, Hagan wrote to Eric Shinseki, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to complain about the long waits for veterans who work with the Winston-Salem regional claims office to get their benefits.

At that time, she said, the average wait time was 341 days, up from 329 days the previous September. There were more than 700 veterans who had been waiting more than two years to hear about their benefits.

In June, Hagan announced that a high-level VA official would come to Winston-Salem to personally investigate, and that an extra 25 employees had been added to the regional office here.

Tuesday, Hagan said the backlog of cases more than 2 years old had been completely eliminated and that the average claim-processing time has been lowered to 200 days.

Still, there’s an ongoing problem with appeals. Veterans can file an appeal when a claim is rejected, but resolving the appeal can take a long time.

“There are 11,000 appeals on backlog at the Winston-Salem office,” Hagan said. “In some cases veterans are waiting four years or longer. My office has handled 3,000 veterans’ cases, including many appeals. The benefits system has reduced the initial number (of claims) but there doesn’t seem to be a similar initiative for veterans who are stuck in the appeals process.”

Hagan said that in 2004 Congress created a committee to find better ways of sharing information between the VA and branches of the armed services. Although that effort was supposed to bear fruit by 2015, Hagan said she is concerned that it is not going to happen on time.

Hagan suggested that the problem shouldn’t be any shortage of money because the VA has been unaffected by the federal budget sequester and “has received everything the VA has asked for from Congress.”

Hagan said she has written another letter to Shinseki asking for an update on the plan to improve data transfer on veterans between the VA and the military branches.

“Better communication between the departments is a common-sense solution,” Hagan said.

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