WASHINGTON - For veterans seeking disability compensation, the application process is supposed to be so easy that a handwritten note on a napkin will initiate a claim or an appeal. A proposed rule from the Obama administration would change that, and veterans groups are sounding the alarm.
The Department of Veterans Affairs says the many ways that requests for disability compensation arrive actually hamper its ability to administer benefits, and they contribute to a claims backlog that has about 400,000 veterans waiting more than 125 days for a decision. At times, workers spend so much time trying to figuring out what's being claimed and trading letters with applicants that it's slowing down decisions for everyone.
The VA's solution: Require veterans to use a standard form when they file for disability compensation - or appeal a decision, and throw in some incentives for those who use a computer.
The response to the proposed rule from the nation's major veterans groups?
"Draconian" and "heavy-handed," said the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "A seismic change" that will "poison" the disability claims process, said the American Legion. "The most serious, egregious attack on a veteran-friendly disability claim system in VA history," declared the law firm of Bergmann & Moore, which specializes in pursuing disability claims.
The critiques recently submitted in response to the proposed regulation point to one of the sharpest policy disagreements that veteran groups have had with the Obama administration.
Both camps have generally agreed on the need to transform how disability claims are managed; namely, the need to move to a computer system instead of relying on paper records to track a veteran's injuries, illnesses and service. So far, the burden has been on the VA to transform. The proposed regulations would place more of the burden on the veteran.
"VA believes that using a standard form is a minimal burden to place on claimants," the proposed rule states.
But for veterans, a major advantage of the current system is that once the VA makes its decision, benefits generally accrue back to when a veteran first initiated his or her claim, usually months and sometimes years earlier.
Indeed, submitting what are referred to as "informal claims" has become a standard practice for veterans because it locks in the effective date of their claim even as they gather supporting evidence such as military records and doctor's exams for the more formal application. Then, if the application is approved, the veteran often ends up getting a sizeable lump-sum payment in addition to a monthly award.
Under the proposed regulation, the first communication from a veteran may not trigger anything. Those veterans who put their claims in writing would have to completely fill out a standard form, and the clock that determines how far back the government will pay, won't begin ticking until the VA receives the successfully completed form.
The veterans groups say it's perfectly reasonable for the VA to use a standard form to enhance efficiency, but they worry that the time it takes to gather records and successfully complete the standard form could lead to substantially less money for veterans. They worry that the omission of a single entry could take months to resolve.
"A combat veteran of two tours in Iraq is defeated by a bureaucratic requirement to fill in all the boxes of a claim form," said the VFW's William Bradshaw in the organization's formal response.
They argue that veterans who are the most vulnerable - the homeless, those with traumatic brain injury and those with a limited education - would have the most trouble meeting the new standard.
The VA is trying to get more veterans to file disability claims electronically, so it will maintain a more relaxed standard for those who use its computer system. Even if the form is incomplete, the veteran will have a full year to finish it, and the VA will still consider the initial unfinished submission as the starting date for when benefits accrue.
But the veterans groups oppose that approach. They said that such favorable treatment for computer users ignores that millions of veterans, particularly the elderly, don't have computers or ready access to the Internet.
The VA said that veterans who don't have a computer can go to the closest VA facility to get help. It said numerous veteran organizations can also assist in filing claims electronically.
The VA said it has no fixed timeline for issuing a final rule. If the VA goes ahead with the regulation, it would take effect 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register.