The Department of Veterans Affairs and Defense Department have improved disability claims processing time for troops leaving the military -- but there is still more to be done, officials told lawmakers Wednesday.
Officials with the VA, DoD and the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) testified Wednesday at a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing on the agencies' pre-discharge claims programs.
"The most important element that we've seen in making improvements is, in fact, better coordination between the DoD and VA," said Elizabeth Etsy, a Democrat from Connecticut and ranking member on the disability assistance and memorial affairs subcommittee. "That's not easy to do, but it's essential if we're going to continue to make progress."
The VA and DoD's Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES), which rolled out in 2009, is designed to streamline the medical discharge or retirement and ratings process for service members.
Instead of duplicating many appointments and paperwork, IDES is meant to push troops through with one set of appointments while processing their claim simultaneously.
In 2007, the disability process took an average 540 days from start to finish for the VA to deliver benefits. But in 2017, that timeline dropped to an average of 250 days, Terry Adirim, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for health policy, told lawmakers.
And once claims enter the system, the VA is processing them in an average of 81 days -- 102 days faster than in May 2014, when the subcommittee last examined the topic, said Willie Clark, the VA's deputy under secretary for field operations.
The VA early this fall shut down a claims process known as "quick start" that allowed troops with 59 days or fewer left in service, considered a late start, to begin the VA disability claims process.
A new program known as Decision Ready Claims was put in place to allow current troops to work with veteran service organizations, such as the American Legion or VFW, to build a claim that can be submitted as soon as they are off active duty and, in theory, processed within 30 days.
While an official with the American Legion said his organization has not heard consistently negative feedback, an official with the VFW told the committee that eliminating the quick start program is forcing many veterans to wait to start a claim until after they get out.
In the past, he said, up to half of the claims the VFW helped process were in the quick start category.
And while the new Decision Ready process appears to be valuable, he said, the VA needs to provide a pre-discharge solution for those who do not meet that 60 day cutoff.
"It troubles us that VA is telling service members it will no longer work on up to 50 percent of pre-discharge claims until they officially leave the military," said Ryan Gallucci, the VFW's director for its national veterans service.
Lawmakers said they plan to hold additional hearings on the disability process.
"I'm hoping we can find out ways that DoD and VA can make all of the pre-discharge processes more efficient for our nation's service members," said Rep. Mike Bost, an Illinois Republican who chairs the subcommittee.
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at email@example.com.