VA moves to fix benefits claims processing, reduce appeals delays

WASHINGTON—The Department of Veterans Affairs is taking steps to cut the long appeals delays endured by many veterans claiming disability benefits from the government.

Saying that the number of times veterans' appeals must be redone is "unacceptable," VA officials said they are trying to reduce the number of cases sent back for more work, or "remanded," from the Board of Veterans' Appeals to one of the VA's 57 regional offices.

While some remands are unavoidable, many are caused by mistakes at the regional offices, and they can cause veterans to wait years while their cases go from regional offices, up to the appeals board and back down again. They're symptomatic of an agency that has long been beset by delays and uneven performance among its regional offices.

Remands that could be avoided are "a burden" to the VA "and to the veterans we serve," Daniel Cooper, a top official with the VA, wrote in a December memo. "They require significant resources, and in many instances represent an unnecessary and unacceptable delay in the resolution of appeals, and bad customer service to appellants."

Over the past three months, the VA has undertaken a series of steps and training sessions to reduce regional office errors. The VA said it expects the efforts to produce a "significant reduction" in remands. Recently, the department's remand rates have dropped.

Remands come about when a veteran appeals a VA regional office's decision—usually one denying benefits for disability compensation. However, the appeals board often doesn't decide in favor of the veteran or in favor of the VA.

Instead, between 40 percent and 50 percent of cases are sent back to a regional office for further work, often because documentation in the case is incomplete or errors were made in deciding the case. Most years, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 such cases—a level that's remained high during the past decade despite attempts by the VA to reduce it.

VA records show that there's a wide regional variation in the percentage of cases sent back. In the Huntington, W.Va., regional office, 53 percent of cases in the last three fiscal years were sent back for re-evaluation, according to an analysis of veteran appeals records. In St. Paul, Minn., only 25 percent of cases were remanded.

The VA is still trying to get a handle on how many of these cases are preventable.

According to Cooper's memo, many of them "are presumably in the control of, and could be prevented by, regional offices."

For the five-month period ending March 31, more than 60 percent of the reasons listed for sending a case back took place "before certification"—that is, while the case was still at the regional office, according to VA documents.

Among the reasons the cases are sent back: Veterans aren't properly notified of their right to expect VA help in preparing a case, complete medical exams aren't scheduled and veterans' medical and military records aren't thoroughly compiled.

Cooper, in a recent interview, said he wants all regional offices to develop procedures to reduce many documentation shortfalls. The appeals board "may not agree with the judgment, but we don't want them to be able to come back and say, `Well, you didn't give me this piece of information,'" Cooper said.

Vince Crawford, who heads the VA's office in St. Paul, said his staff is very experienced, which helps reduce procedural errors, and it works hard to resolve a claim before a time-consuming appeal gets under way. "The best way to avoid remands is to not have cases go up at all," Crawford said.

Appeals on average take 2.6 years from filing to a Board of Veterans' Appeals decision, according to VA data.