Politics & Government

Battling a backlog, VA says it will speed decisions on some veterans’ disability claims

President-elect Barack Obama stands with Veterans Affairs Secretary designate Ret. Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki during a news conference in Chicago, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President-elect Barack Obama stands with Veterans Affairs Secretary designate Ret. Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki during a news conference in Chicago, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) AP

The Department of Veterans Affairs, under fire for the sluggish pace of awarding disability benefits for wounded veterans, announced a new plan Friday to provisionally approve its oldest claims based on the evidence already in its files.

The VA said Friday it will begin to focus on claims that have been pending for more than a year – a good chunk of all the claims in the agency’s massive backlog. Beginning immediately, the VA will make provisional decisions on those claims, allowing veterans to begin collecting benefits far sooner.

“We don’t want veterans to have to wait any longer than necessary to get decisions on the benefits they’ve earned and deserve,” Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, said Friday in a conference call with reporters.

Veterans and their advocates have complained for years about the agency’s slow decision-making process, and they’ve watched again and again as the VA promised improvements that never seemed to materialize. Veterans just back from the recent wars – as well as those who served in Vietnam, Korea or World War II – have waited months, or even years, for decisions that were often wrong and often required additional months or years of appeals.

The provisional decisions on claims will be based on all evidence the VA has received to date – information either from the veteran or developed by the VA. Those provisional decisions will note the evidence the VA used and what has yet to be provided, and the veteran will begin receiving benefits immediately.

Veterans then will have up to a year to submit additional evidence to the file if they are seeking to boost their benefits. If no additional information comes in, the decision will be considered final, although veterans have a right to appeal such decisions.

The VA also said that these older cases will get expedited medical exams if needed for the claim to be approved.

The agency’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.

But although the VA has pledged for years to give veterans swift and accurate decisions on their claims, in recent years the agency has rarely met its goals to do so.

Swamped by claims from recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, as well as those from earlier wars, the VA’s backlog of cases has swelled. Incoming claims have jumped to more than 1 million a year.

The VA’s ambitious goals are to have all claims decided in 125 days or less and with errors in just 2 percent of claims. The VA has said it’s on track to meet these goals by 2015, in part due to changes made in the regional offices that decide the claims.

The most recent fiscal year, however, showed an error rate of 14 percent. And the most recent numbers show that of more than 800,000 claims awaiting decisions, 70 percent have been pending more than 125 days.

In addition, 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.

Even if the latest initiative is successful, it actually will make some of the numbers worse in the short term. As the VA decides the oldest claims on its books, the average-days-to-complete number will jump, as the old claims pull up the overall numbers. Over time, however, the VA said the numbers will come down as the VA finally takes care of those oldest claims.

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