Politics & Government

VA, White House pledge to improve disability system for vets

The emblem of the Department of Veterans Affairs
The emblem of the Department of Veterans Affairs MCT

The White House and the Department of Veterans Affairs say that they’re pushing hard to speed up the slow and cumbersome disability claims process and that a recent overhaul to the system should start to yield benefits soon.

The fiscal 2014 budget, to be released next week, will support those efforts, with increases to the VA division that processes veterans’ claims for disability compensation, as well as a boost in mental health care services. The administration also wants to make permanent tax credits to employers that hire veterans, the White House said in a briefing with reporters.

“My job is to make sure that we’re hitting the targets that the people who allow us to invest their money expect to see,” said White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who held the briefing with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

The VA has struggled for years to get a handle on the growing number of claims for disability compensation that it receives from recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as well as those from earlier wars.

And while the department for years has continually told Congress and veterans nationwide that it was working to improve its problems, processing time and accuracy has remained far away from the department’s goals and in many cases has gotten worse.

By 2015, the department wants to process disability claims with a 2 percent error rate, but the most recent fiscal year had an error rate of 14 percent.

Also by 2015, the department wants to ensure that no claim is pending for more than 125 days. The most recent figures show that two-thirds of claims – more than 550,000 – have been pending for more than 125 days.

The department’s closely tracked figure for the average days necessary to complete each claim jumped to 262 last year, the highest that measure has been in at least the past 20 years for which numbers were available.

“Any veteran waiting for a claims decision is waiting too long,” Shinseki said. “There’s nobody more impatient about this than I am.”

Asked why veterans should believe the department’s performance will make dramatic improvements by 2015 when some performance measures have deteriorated in recent years, Shinseki said that in recent years the department had made difficult-but-necessary decisions to expand benefits for some older veterans. That added to its workload.

Then, the department undertook a major overhaul of its processing system, moving office by office to eliminate paper records, curtail pointless shuffling of files and speed decision-making. Shinseki said 30 of 56 regional offices that decide veterans’ claims already have begun using the new system. As more regional offices get on board by the end of the year, productivity should improve and the backlog should begin to substantially improve.

The VA’s disability benefits are awarded to veterans who suffer physical or mental injuries during their military service. They range from $129 a month to $2,816 a month for a single veteran.

“We’re bringing all the power of the government to bear . . . to try to address the backlog,” McDonough said.

Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he was pleased to see the White House’s involvement in the issue. But he indicated veterans have been hearing promises of improvement for years.

“While we welcome the proposed increase in funding, ending the backlog is not a problem that can just be solved with more money,” he said. “It’s about successfully executing a plan we’ve been hearing about for years. It’s a matter of finally transforming a broken system into a streamlined one that works for veterans, some of whom have been waiting as much as 1,000 days for their benefits.”

According to the White House, the budget that will be presented next week will boost the VA’s discretionary funding by 4 percent, to $63.5 billion, for fiscal 2014. Included in that is a 13.6 percent increase in the budget for the VA division that processes disability claims, helping complete the switch to the new paperless system.

The president also will ask to make permanent two tax credits that help employers that hire veterans. The Returning Heroes Tax Credit provides up to $5,600 to employers to hire unemployed veterans, and the Wounded Warrior Tax Credit provides up to $9,600 for hiring long-term unemployed veterans who have service-connected disabilities.

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