The Department of Veterans Affairs and two of the country’s leading veterans’ service organizations say they have developed a plan to speed up action on disability claims and help bring down the claims backlog that is frustrating veterans, their families, and congressional lawmakers.
The three organizations are hoping to do it in part by getting the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion -- groups that already assist vets in developing fully developed claims -- to produce even more. But they also want to expand the number of veterans groups and volunteers able to produce fully developed claims (FDC), which can be handled much more quickly by the VA.
“The American Legion and DAV understand the power of an FDC and have therefore helped design this new … initiative,” VA Under Secretary for Benefit Allison Hickey, DAV Executive Director Barry Jesinoski, and American Legion National Commander James Koutz said in the joint announcement Monday. The groups and the VA identified potential stumbling blocks and opportunities in the program so they could mutually train their people – VA claims processors and VSO advocates.
Officials say that increasing DAV and Legion goals in turning out FDCs, and getting even more groups involved in developing them, will play a major role in helping VA to process accurate claims within 125 days and end the backlog in 2015. Those timeframes were established in 2009 by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The VA so far has a dismal record in meeting that 125-day processing time, while veterans groups and lawmakers have been largely skeptical that the department will end the backlog by 2015. The newest player among groups representing veterans – the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America – has been leading an effort to get the White House involved in finding a solution to the backlog, which now sits at about 600,000.
Currently, it can take up to 600 days or more for a veteran’s claim to be acted on by the VA. It often takes the VA 200 days to gather necessary records that may already be in the veteran’s possession, such as private medical records, Hickey, Jesinoski and Koutz said in their announcement.
The new initiative aims to change all that.
“We have been working with VA since last December on its fully developed claims process,” Koutz said. “Teams of our experts have already gone to VA regional offices in Denver, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and other cities to help identify best practices for FDCs, and to further train our own service officers.”
He said the Legion’s next visit in support of the FDC program is planned for June at the VA regional office in Reno, Nev.
Jesinoski called the initiative “a common-sense approach to working smarter to better serve our injured and ill veterans.”
Hickey, who has taken much of the heat from lawmakers during several hearings on the Hill, said a fully-developed claim is “the basis for this new initiative between VA and what we expect will be an ever-increasing number of veterans’ service organizations … and others who represent veterans at various points of the claims process.”
The VA recently announced two other steps it is taking to tackle the backlog.
It is mandating overtime for its 10,000 or so claims processors across the country and also allowing provisional compensation to tens of thousands of veterans whose claims have been languishing in the system for more than one year.
Under the provisional policy, raters can make a decision on compensation based on the available evidence in the veteran’s file. The veteran then has a year to submit additional information to support a claim before the decision becomes final.