A congressional subcommittee on Tuesday questioned whether the Defense Department’s record-keeping at the unit level is contributing to delays in the Department of Veterans Affairs claims process.
The VA has regularly taken a beating from Congress and veterans service organizations for delays -- sometimes lasting more than a year -- in veterans getting a decision on applications for disability and health benefits.
Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance, said there has to be better collaboration between the VA and Defense Department to make it easier on troops transitioning back to the civilian world.
“VA has a statutory duty to assist a claimant in obtaining certain records,” he said. “Accordingly, it is important that we work together to ensure that VA is able to communicate both effectively and efficiently with both the National Archives and Defense Department to comply with this duty.”
But Runyan said there is some evidence that record-keeping at the active-duty units in the combat theater has been poor, including documentation of combat-related incidents. That’s hurting the VA’s ability to carry out its own mission in assisting vets, he said.
James Neighbors, director of the DoD/VA Collaboration Office at the Pentagon, said the Defense Department has consistently improved its ability to identify and track troops’ records in and out of the theaters. A Joint Services Records Research Center provides unit information and deck logs to the VA for post-traumatic stress disorder through the Defense Personnel Records Information System, he said.
The joint center conducts PTSD claims research for the VA, he said. Also, the Army maintains a database with the names of about 758,000 troops and more than 900,000 daily unit locations in the Persian Gulf region to which the troops are assigned. This information is also provided to the VA for claims purposes.
The backlog has been a sore point among veterans and members of Congress. Notwithstanding the VA’s hiring of thousands of new staff and professionals in the past two years, the wait on claims and for people to see health professionals has only increased.
In 2011, more than 1.3 million claims were filed, according to the VA. That is twice the number filed before the invasion of Afghanistan and does not count the claims filed every year since that war and the start of the Iraq War.
At least part of the increase in claims, however, is related to the VA’s decision to expand the number of illnesses it accepts as related to exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. That immediately opened up the claims system to a large number of aging Vietnam veterans.
In January, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki testified before Congress that a paperless system was the only way to eliminate the claims backlog. The goal is to have every claim acted on within 125 days of it being filed, with an accuracy rate of 98 percent, he said.
Alan Bozeman, director of the VA’s Veterans Benefits Management System, said the agency currently has contracts with two firms, totaling $22 million, to scan millions of VA documents. Optical and intelligent character recognition technologies are also being utilized so that even handwritten and photographic data and information can be searched for among the digitized documents, he said.
Bozeman said that as the companies get more efficient he expects up to 60 million documents a month will be processed between them. He also said the contract is such that whichever company shows the greater productivity will be able to get more of the VA’s work.
“Paperless claims processing through [the Veterans Benefits Management System] while maintaining the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the data, is critical to our transformation goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015 and ensuring timely and quality delivery of benefits and services to our veterans, their families, and survivors,” he said.