(Stars and Stripes)

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WASHINGTON – Hundreds of thousands of veterans are waiting for their earned benefits because of a backlog of compensation and pension exam requests that grew during the coronavirus pandemic.

The exams are a crucial part of the process to determine whether veterans are eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits. The department suspended the exams in April 2020, as coronavirus cases spread across the United States, and during that time about 200,000 requests accumulated, said David McLenachen, executive director of the VA’s medical disability examination office.

McLenachen testified about the issue Tuesday before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. As of then, there were 352,000 pending exams – 212,000 above normal, pre-pandemic levels, he said.

The VA is scrambling to eradicate the backlog of appointments by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, but lawmakers and veterans’ advocates remain skeptical of the agency’s ability to achieve that goal.

The department needs to complete about 40,000 exams each week to erase the backlog, but it’s currently performing only 32,000, said Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas.

“I am worried, truly worried, that if the VA continues to operate under the status quo, the VA will not reach its goal of addressing the exam inventory by the end of the fiscal year,” Nehls said. “And I am not alone in my concerns.”

Veterans’ service organizations, as well as the Government Accountability Office and VA Office of Inspector General, told lawmakers that the VA needed a better plan.

The pandemic hit while the VA was in the process of eliminating its in-house compensation and pension program and shifting the exams to private contractors. The VA sent an email to its staff Oct. 21, saying compensation and pension examinations were “no longer conducted” by the department. The email directed employees to stop contacting VA hospitals and clinics about performing the examinations.

The VA is lax with its oversight of the contractors, said Elizabeth Curda, a director with the Government Accountability Office. Over the past year, contractors have taken on more complex cases, such as exams for traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and Gulf War Illness, which used to be handled by the VA. The shift in responsibility has led to more errors in exam reports, Curda said.

“The VA has not fully applied sound planning practices in transferring exams from the [Veterans Health Administration] to contractors,” she said. “They’ve not identified goals, established a strategy, timelines or a risk assessment.”

Toby Matthew, chief officer in the VA’s office of disability and medical health, said that 300 health care workers were moved from compensation and pension examinations at the start of the pandemic to help with treatment of coronavirus patients. Matthew is searching for workers who could be reassigned to help with the backlog of exams, he said.

Representatives from Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars voiced concerns about an influx of new exam requests that are likely to hit the VA because of a bill approved by Congress last year. Under the bill, three illnesses – bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s-like symptoms – were added to the list of conditions believed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The additions make tens of thousands of veterans newly eligible for VA benefits.

“If left unchecked … VA’s backlog will reach critical mass similar to that in 2013,” said Shane Liermann, with Disabled American Veterans. “Veterans need VA to be prepared with a plan for the future, and action must be taken now.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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