The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced Friday a plan to immediately evaluate and pay the oldest disability claims, a move that advocates expect will bring relief to Maryland servicemen and women who face one of the largest backlogs in the country.
The agency will make provisional decisions on claims that are at least a year old and have not been acted upon. Based on a rating of the severity of the veteran's disability, benefits will range from about $125 to $3,000 a month, or more if a veteran requires extraordinary care.
The action comes one day after Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and chairwoman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, demanded that VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki expedite the claims process, especially at the Baltimore office, one of the nation's worst-performing regional sites.
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Mikulski said the decision to deliver benefits sooner is an important step "to ensure our veterans won't face homelessness or serious illness while their claims are stuck in red tape."
"I've been laser-focused on ending the backlog in Baltimore, which has resulted in unacceptably long wait times, lost paperwork and high rates of errors," she said in a statement. "Our veterans have already fought on the front lines. They should not have to fight their own government for benefits they've earned and deserve when they return home."
Paul Sullivan, director of veteran outreach at the law firm Bergmann & Moore in Bethesda, said that "chronic delays and frequent mistakes, especially in Baltimore, mean tremendous hardship," particularly for veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, or are unemployable.
He said the fast-tracking initiative falls short, noting that it does not apply to cases under appeal.
"VA's new policy sounds great," he said, "but we are worried it may backfire because it ignores older claims already waiting years on appeal."
Rep John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, called the expedited processing of benefits "welcome news."
"It will take a lot more work and innovative thinking to solve this huge problem," he said, "but I believe this is a step in the right direction."
The Baltimore office processes disability claims submitted by Maryland's 450,000 veterans. The Baltimore Sun reported earlier this year that the error rate in the local VA office is the highest in the nation at 26.8 percent.
Its percentage of cases older than four months also was the highest in the nation in late January. That rate now stands at 83 percent, with about 15,600 of the 19,000 disability claims under review older than 125 days — ranking the Baltimore office ahead of only those in Washington and Oakland, Calif.
The average wait for Maryland veterans to receive a ruling on a disability claim is 15 months; nationally, the average is about nine months.
To correct the problems at the Baltimore office, the VA announced in February that it would conduct further employee training, add senior staff and implement a new digital processing system several months earlier than scheduled. The staff in Baltimore is completing monthlong training.
Since January, the VA staff in Baltimore has processed 1,200 to 1,400 claims a month, roughly double the average in previous months. An additional 4,000 claims are expected to be processed through June.
The VA's latest initiative to provide provisional decisions, effective Friday, will enable eligible veterans to begin collecting benefits more quickly, according to the agency. If the VA needs more information to make a provisional decision, such as a medical examination, the agency said one will be expedited.
After the provisional rating is issued, the veteran will have a year to submit additional evidence for consideration. If the veteran does not provide further information, provisional decisions will be finalized, according to the agency. Servicemen and women will have the right to appeal.
If the VA later determines that the veteran qualifies for higher benefits based on additional evidence, benefits will be applied retroactively to the date the claim was filed, according to the agency.
The agency's goal is to eliminate the backlog within two years.
"Too many veterans wait too long for a decision, and this has never been acceptable," Shinseki said in a statement. "That is why we are implementing an aggressive plan to eliminate the backlog in 2015. This initiative is the right thing to do now for veterans who have waited the longest."
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement that his group wants to hear more details about the plan.
"Today's action makes clear that there is more the VA and White House could have done to address the growing backlog earlier," he said. "Veterans still need to see a comprehensive plan, need more clarity about their claims, and need presidential leadership that ultimately will bring the backlog down to zero."
Claims for homeless veterans and wounded veterans discharged from the military for medical reasons will continue to be prioritized, the VA said. The agency also will continue to fast-track claims for veterans facing financial hardship, those who are terminally ill, former prisoners of war and Medal of Honor recipients, among others.
Eligible veterans can receive health care and other benefits from the VA while their disability claims are pending, according to the agency. Veterans who have served in recent conflicts can receive five years of free health care through the VA.