The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday said it has a new online application that will enable faster processing of disability claims.
The eBenefits portal, jointly operated by the VA and the Defense Department, integrates with the Veterans Benefits Management System’s electronics claims system, according to the VA, which heralded the portal as an important milestone in the move to a fully digital process.
“Veterans can now file their claims online through eBenefits like they might do their taxes online,” Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey said in the statement. With the new online system, veterans will be able to upload digital images of records and other evidence to support their claims, and not mail them in through the post and wait for confirmation of receipt, she said.
Key to new portal’s efficiency will be veterans, working with veterans’ service organizations such as The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and Veterans of Foreign Wars, filing so-called Fully Developed Claims: those with all documents and medical records necessary for claims officials to make a decision.
“We’ve been working closely with VA for several months on its fully developed claims initiative,” American legion Executive Director Peter Gayton told Military.com. “These are the kinds of disability claims that move through the VA system much faster, and we’ve been training our service officers nationwide to develop these FDCs for our veterans.”
Gayton said the “new arrangement should encourage more veterans to submit FDCs.”
The portal is critical to the VA’s plan to end the controversial claims backlog by the end of 2015, said Hickey, who has drawn much of the criticism from congressional leaders and some veterans. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has called for her resignation, though there is no indication that is going to happen.
There currently are just over 851,000 claims filed with the VA, with most of them -- about 565,000 -- past the 125-day period that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki set as a resolution time. In some parts of the country, the wait time is past 600 days.
VA officials say they are making progress, however, and recently announced the overall backlog number is down by more than 70,000 since the department mandated overtime for claims processors in May. The effort is especially focused on claims that are older than two years.
But a new wrinkle was added to the backlog controversy on Tuesday during a Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing: the wait times for action on claims that the VA rejected and which the veteran appealed. There are currently more than 45,000 claims on appeal, and that number is expected to grow to more than 100,000 by 2017, according to the committee.
In 2012, the average time it took for an appeal to be completed was 903 days.
Members of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance said they were concerned that VA regional offices may have shifted resources away from appeals to bring down the main backlog.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., ranking member of the panel, said she hears routinely from veterans in her district and elsewhere who have been waiting for long periods to hear a decision on their appeals.
But Keith Wilson, director of the Roanoke Regional Office of the Veterans Benefits Administration, said he could speak for his own region in saying that it has not diverted its appeals processing personnel to handle regular claims, except as part of the mandatory overtime.
“During the mandatory overtime, those employees are working on the two-year initiative, but when they’re doing their regular core hours they are continuing to focus on processing appeals,” Wilson said. “We are not at all happy with the amount of time it takes to process appeals. We are not at all happy with the time it takes to process a claim, but I can tell you right out we are not robbing Peter to pay Paul. We are focusing on both.”