The Department of Veterans Affairs announced a plan Friday to tackle its disability claims backlog by awarding provisional compensation to tens of thousands of veterans whose claims have languished in the VA's system.
"This is an important initiative because it will accelerate delivery of compensation benefits to those eligible veterans who have waited the longest, some over two years," VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey told reporters Friday morning. "Veterans whose claims are granted will begin receiving compensation immediately after a provisional rating decision."
All claims older than one year should be resolved in about six months, she said.
In the meantime, she said, the new focus on these older claims will mean the average number of days it takes to complete one – now 286 days – will go up. But as more of the older, paper-based claims are resolved, and more come in electronically, the average will shrink significantly, she said.
"It [the average] will spike, and then it will start coming down," Hickey said.
The new program does not change the claims status of select groups of veterans, such as former prisoners of war, Medal of Honor recipients, the homeless and terminally ill. These veterans will continue to have expedited claims processing, Hickey said.
The VA's claims backlog has been estimated to be as high as 600,000, with some dating back more than two years. Depending on where a veteran lives in the country, he or she can expect to wait more than 600 days to have a claim acted on.
Hickey said the department did not have an estimate for what it will cost to carry out the provisional claims program.
The VA, and Hickey in particular, have come under increasing criticism from Congress. Lawmakers are showing increasing frustration and impatience with the time it is taking for veterans to have their claims processed.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has publicly called for Hickey's resignation. He said someone new is needed to get the VA's benefits system in order.
In a statement released several hours after Hickey announced the new plan, Miller said the approach "sounds promising, [but] we will be monitoring it closely to make sure it's good policy rather than just good PR. "
Miller noted that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Hickey and other VA officials have testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee several times in recent weeks but never mentioned the plan until Friday. Miller cautioned that the VA must not shift resources and manpower away from processing new claims just to clear out old ones.
"Every veteran deserves a thorough, fair and timely evaluation of their claim, regardless of when it was filed. This policy should not interfere with that concept," he said.
The idea of awarding disability compensation on a provisional basis has been recommended by some veterans' organizations in the past. Hickey said this morning the VA is able to move on the idea now because the workforce it had been dedicating to Agent Orange claims from the Vietnam War – about 37 percent of its specialists – have completed that job and are available again to work on more current claims.
She said the ratings specialist will start with the oldest of the claims from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and work their way forward. A disability rating will be based on what is in the file and any compensation retroactive to the date of the claim application.
Veterans also will have one year from the date of the provisional awarding to provide additional evidence – or have the VA request new evidence – to change the rating. If no additional information is provided in that time, the disability rating is ruled permanent, though the veteran retains the right to appeal that decision, Hickey said.
One exception to the available evidence provision will be claims for post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD claims will require evaluation from VA doctors, Hickey said. But she said these would also be ordered immediately under the new plan.
Garry J. Augustine, national service director for the Disabled American Veterans, said the organization is pleased to see the VA taking the initiative to try and resolve its older cases. The DAV and other veterans' service organizations were briefed on the plan more than a week ago.
"The bottom line for us is this, anything they can do to try to get these older cases resolved will be positive, as long as they don't jeopardize veterans' rights," he said.
The DAV wanted to make sure vets had some options under the VA's provisional claims plan, and the department seemed to respond to the group's concerns, Augustine said.
"I like the fact that [veterans] can accept the provisional award or choose not to," he said. "But we're being cautious to make sure the implementation is as intended."