Editorial: Congress attempts to speed VA claims

Last modified: 5/16/2013 5:23:41 PM
Among the many, many effects that the architects of America’s two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem not to have prepared for is the huge, new demand for service from injured and sick veterans – and the utter inability of the Department of Veterans Affairs to keep pace.

As a result, the agency is now sitting on a backlog of 570,000 claims, which means the requests for medical or rehabilitative services have been pending for more than 125 days. Of those, 250,000 have been awaiting decisions for a year or longer. In all, the number of pending claims is nearly 900,000. That number represents a 2,000 percent increase over the past four years, despite a 40 percent increase in the VA’s budget over that time.

And even as the agency announced a new strategy recently to tackle the oldest of the claims, officials acknowledged that the effort would probably temporarily increase the time required to complete a new claim. Already, the average wait time is 286 days.

Needless to say, the frustration among veterans and their advocates is palpable. That’s why a new collection of pragmatic proposals from members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, including legislation sponsored by 2nd District Rep. Annie Kuster, is an important and positive step.

The 10 bills are aimed at supporting the VA’s pledge to clear the claims backlog in full by 2015, a promise that has drawn understandable skepticism from many legislators. The notion is to ensure that the VA has the information it needs to accurately process benefits claims by requiring better inter-agency collaboration. The bills would encourage the VA to make better use of technology and require the agency to track information more efficiently and transparently. It would hold accountable those VA offices that aren’t operating with appropriate speed.

Kuster’s bill, for instance, would require the VA to provide an annual report listing those medical conditions that are processed in an electronic, automated fashion and the feasibility of adding additional medical conditions for which claims could be automated. The idea is to pressure the agency to simplify and modernize its processes as completely as possible.

A proposal sponsored by Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine would create a pilot program in which the highest-performing VA offices would be called upon to adjudicate claims involving the most difficult medical conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The idea is that by creating claims specialists, the agency will be able to speed the processing of such claims and reduce errors.

A measure sponsored by Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada would require the VA to pay benefits for individual medical conditions as they are adjudicated, rather than waiting for all medical conditions within an entire claim to be settled. The result, presumably, would be faster payments for sick veterans.

Still another proposal, sponsored by Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, would allow veterans who submit credible private medical evidence in support of a claim to skip a separate VA medical examination. The idea is to conserve resources and move the system along more quickly.

A measure sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng of New York would require annual reports on VA regional offices that fail to meet backlog reduction goals. Such goals include dealing with all claims within 125 pays and 98 percent accuracy.

Taken together, the bills appear to rely on a good deal of common sense – and will no doubt leave voters wondering why these steps weren’t taken years (and years) ago.

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