Written by: Rachel Strubel

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) recently announced a new initiative in an attempt to simplify the disability claim process for both veterans and the Department. Starting in March 2015, the VA will use new standardized electronic forms, making it easier for veterans to state their disability claims with the necessary information. The VA is also simultaneously creating a new “Intent to File” procedure that preserves the claim’s effective date while giving the veteran up to a year to compile the necessary documentation. Previously, veterans were able to submit their request for benefits in any form, which VA alleges contributed to the delays in processing. With these initiatives, the VA hopes to increase the efficiency in the disability claims and appeals process.

While it appears facially that these new processes will provide more assistance to veterans by increasing the efficiency of the disability compensation, it may in fact be more detrimental to veterans. First and foremost, these processes require veterans to submit additional documentation, increasing the burden on the veteran despite the VA’s statutory duty to assist veterans in the disability claims process.  In other words, these processes are passing the VA’s duty onto veterans.  Additionally, many veterans may not have access to these forms and the requested information as many veterans are homeless or lack the necessary resources. Requiring veterans to complete standardized electronic forms may be even more cumbersome and daunting to veterans, in a system that is already difficult to understand and navigate. While these initiatives may increase the disability claims processing speed, the VA is dramatically increasing the burden on veterans that the VA was designed to serve.

References:

VA to unveil new standardized disability claims forms. The Navy Times, September 24, 2014. http://www.navytimes.com/article/20140924/BENEFITS04/ 309240057/VA-unveil-new-standardized-disability-claims-forms

Druzin, Heath. New Electronic Form to Streamline Chaotic VA Claims Process. Military.com News, September 26, 2014. http://www.military.com/daily-news/2014/09/26/new-electronic-form-to-streamline-chaotic-va-claims-process.html

Written by: Chelsea King

On September 10, news broke of another VA records doctoring scandal: this time, at the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA), the appellate court that handles benefit claims appeals.  Whistleblower Kelli Kordich testified before Congress and exposed the BVA’s manipulation of records in order to keep long delays under wraps.  She also testified that BVA decisions sat on board heads’ desks for hundreds of days only needing a mere signature.  BVA leaders, however, denied the allegations, saying that the delay is a result of overwork.

Two Senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee specifically called out the VA regarding this in a letter to Secretary McDonald on September 17.  One of their proposed solutions is to “make better use of [the] Decision Review Officers” at the Regional Offices.  This statement is a good example of how Congress does not understand the VA.  While it would be great to have more Decision Review Officers (DROs), the priority at the Regional Office level should be to employ competent DROs who are able to handle the intellectual and time rigors of the job.  Without good DROs, the BVA’s backlog will just be increased, leading to more “overwork.”

The BVA news hits close to home here at the Puller Clinic.  Many veterans who had claims decided against them at the Regional Office level have been waiting for many years to hear back from the BVA.  The average wait time for a veteran’s appeal is three years, even before news of the records doctoring broke.  The news is especially disheartening given how much veterans rely on the BVA to provide a more thorough review of their cases and to correct inaccuracies that exist from Regional Office review.

Hopefully Ms. Kordich’s testimony will ignite change in the VA at the appellate level.  While it is important for the Regional Offices to improve, it is just—if not more—important that the BVA runs smoothly and efficiently, since the appellate court reviews appeals from the entire nation’s veterans and is able to overturn Regional Office rulings on benefits claims.

 

Sources:

  1. Travis Tritten, Whistleblower Claims Records Manipulation by VA Appeals Board, Stars And Stripes (Sept. 10, 2014), http://www.stripes.com/news/whistleblower-claims-records-manipulation-by-va-appeals-board-1.302377.
  2. Leo Shane, Mismanagement Alleges at VA Appeals Board, Military Times (Sept. 10, 2014), http://www.militarytimes.com/article/20140910/NEWS05/309100060/Mismanagement-alleged-VA-appeals-board.
  3. Shaheen, Ayotte Call for Investigation Into Board of Veterans Appeals Backlog, Press Release (Sept. 17, 2014), http://www.shaheen.senate.gov/news/press/release/?id=3fdf8d20-7358-4462-8cff-1adf804b4850.

By: K.N. Barrett

 With a backlog of well over 900,000 claims, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is certainly under pressure to find a faster, more efficient method for processing veterans’ disability claims. Currently, the way applying for disability benefits works, veterans fill out their claims documents and submit them to the Veteran Benefits Administration (VBA) of the VA. Upon receiving these claims documents, the VBA schedules veteran claimants in person medical evaluations, called Compensation and Pension Exams (C&P Exams). At these evaluations, VA approved medical personnel examine veterans and determine the severity of the veterans’ disabilities and provide the VBA with a report indicating their findings. As can be imagined, going through this process for every single claim on behalf of every single veteran claimant is a long and time consuming process, which has contributed to the severe backlog situation. However, the VA may have come up with a solution to help speed this process along and eliminate the in-person examination requirement.

In September of 2012 the VHA issued Directive 2012-025, Acceptable Clinical Evidence (ACE) to Support the Compensation & Pension (C&P) Disability Evaluation Process. The purpose of this directive is to shorten the time claims spend being evaluated by the VHA, allowing the VBA to process claims faster. This initiative allows clinicians evaluating veterans’ claims to use medical evidence that has already been documented in veterans’ claims files, supplemented with phone interviews with the veteran claimants, to prepare veterans’ Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQs) without requiring veterans to appear in person for their evaluations. The DBQ is a claims form that helps to ensure that VA ratings specialists have the exact information they need to process veterans’ claims. This change in the process will undoubtedly shorten the wait time for veterans to get through the medical screening process and get their claims evaluated by a VA specialist.

The VA decided to evaluate this new processing system in a 15-month pilot program at one of its regional claims processing offices. During this test period thirty-eight percent of the claims submitted by veterans to the office were eligible for the ACE process, meaning VA medical personnel determined that the records requested contained satisfactory medical information for the processing of these veterans’ claims without the veterans having to physically come in for an evaluation. Percentages of claims eligible for the new process this high will certainly help the VA cut down its backlog numbers and process claims faster.

To read Directive 2012-025 please visit: http://www.va.gov/vhapublications/ViewPublication.asp?pub_ID=2790

 

 

By: James Booth

Where you live may impact how long you wait for a response to your VA claim.  Last week the Veterans Benefits Blog attempted to tackle the question, why do VA claims take so long?  To summarize, a significant part of the problem is due to the fact that a majority of claims files are not electronic but remain on paper.  This problem is visually evident by the unorganized stacks of paper files at nearly every regional office across the country.

While backlog at the VA is systemic, it may come as a surprise that the wait time for a veteran’s claim is not universal across the country.  For example, the average veteran will spend 403 days to have the government respond to his or her claim if they file in Waco, Texas, while a similar veteran in South Dakota will only wait 129 days.  A study by the Center for Investigative Reporting indicates that there is a positive correlation between wait times at various VA regional offices and the veteran population within those particular regions.

What can be learned from all this?  The seemingly obvious, yet most unattainable answer is that a veteran with the opportunity or the ability to choose where they submit their claim should attempt to file in rural regions of the country – North and South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Idaho, and other regions throughout the Midwest.  For most veterans, however, this is simply unrealistic for multiple, unrelated reasons.  These include, but are not limited to, financial considerations, family commitments, professional obligations, a simple cost-benefit analysis, and the exercise of ordinary common sense.

Ultimately, one would hope that this study is most valuable to the VA as it attempts to solve the backlog problem.  Statistical data proves what we have known for some time – the system is overloaded, overworked and under resourced, made all the more obvious by the simple fact that the problem is worse in more populated areas.  The VA should learn from the regional offices in the more rural areas when crafting their solutions to the backlog problem, paying specific attention to how resource are allocated proportionally to the number of veterans they serve.

Finally, a veteran may use this study in an effort to manage their own expectations and a concerned citizen could use it to raise awareness, increase accountability, and apply pressure on elected officials in constituencies that are particularly slow to improve.  To this end, the Center for Investigative Reporting created a map depicting all regional offices  across the United States with valuable information unique to each region.  This information includes the number of outstanding claims by jurisdiction and the average wait time each veteran can expect to endure there.  The map also tracks the progress of each regional office in their attempt to speed up the claims process.  For information on your region visit http://www.baycitizen.org/veterans/interactive/map-disabled-vets-stuck-backlog-limbo/.

For additional information on the study as reported by Aaron Glantz visit http://www.veteranstoday.com/2012/09/04/for-disabled-vets-awaiting-benefits-location-matters/.