VA trying to move faster on benefits claims

Agency is moving to a paperless claims system.

Our government historically has armed soldiers with the technology necessary to succeed on the battlefield, enabling them to topple targets like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Washington finally is recognizing the importance of technology on the home front, too, where it can help soldiers who come home beaten and bloodied.

While much of America went digital years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs is just now deploying a paperless claims system to speed up the processing of soldiers' requests for disability benefits. As of last month it was being used in 18 regional claims processing offices with plans to expand it to 38 others, including Philadelphia, sometime this year.

"We recognize that too many veterans are waiting too long to get the benefits they have earned, and that is unacceptable," VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said in a statement a few months ago touting the change. "This is a decades-old problem, and we are implementing a robust plan to address it."

That's great. I've been writing for years about veterans complaining about the claims backlog, how their paperwork got lost and even allegations that paperwork was shredded. But if this has been a decades-old problem, why did it take the government so long to recognize that pushing paper wasn't the fastest way to process these important claims?

VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz told me the current administration couldn't speak for what happened before Eric Shinseki was named veterans affairs secretary in 2009. In an email, she told me Shinseki "pushed for more funding for staff and claims processing" and to use technology to process benefits claims faster.

But the problem has actually gotten worse under Shinseki's watch. The average time to process a claim grew from 161 days in 2009 to 260 days last year, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The VA said there are reasons for that.

It says there has been an increased demand for benefits for several reasons, including the lengthy war on terror and increased outreach to inform veterans of the benefits available to them. In addition, under Shinseki, the VA began recognizing medical conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam and Southeast Asia and simplified the process to file claims for combat post-traumatic stress disorder.

"These decisions expanded access to benefits for hundreds of thousands of veterans and brought significantly more claims into the system," the VA said in January's news release.

As of August, two-thirds of all benefits claims — about 568,000 out of about 856,000 — were considered backlogged, meaning they were pending for more than 125 days, according to the Government Accountability Office. That includes claims for disability benefits for injuries suffered or aggravated during military service and claims for pension benefits, which are available to veterans based on their income.

The VA said the new paperless process system will eliminate the claims backlog by the end of 2015 and allow the agency to process claims with 98 percent accuracy within 125 days. The Government Accountability Office isn't convinced, though.

"The extent to which VA is positioned to meet this ambitious goal remains uncertain," the GAO said in a December report analyzing the agency's claims processing.

The VA said processing time was cut nearly in half during tests of the system. With electronic files, multiple workers can review a file at the same time. Workers don't have to wait for a paper folder to be transported, and there won't be a chance to lose or misplace a file. Claims will be filed electronically by veterans through the VA website, or converted to electronic files if submitted on paper.

"Our approach to claims processing is being modernized to better serve veterans and address the complex claims our employees are dealing with every day," Shinseki said in January's news release touting the change.

Only new claims are being handled paperless as each regional office joins the new processing system. So the change won't have any direct effect on veterans who have claims pending, or are appealing claims decisions.

I wrote Sunday about Army veteran Matthew Ford waiting nearly three years for the Board of Veterans' Appeals to rule on his latest appeal seeking benefits for bronchial asthma related to his service in the Vietnam War.

Ford, of Hanover Township, Northampton County, says his lungs were damaged when he burned human waste with gasoline in a camp cleanup detail and when he was exposed to herbicides used to kill vegetation the enemy used for cover. Ford first applied for benefits for his breathing issues in 1995.

If the VA's paperless system can process new claims faster and more efficiently, maybe veterans like Ford will benefit eventually because there won't be as many appeals filed and those that are pending will be resolved sooner. The Government Accountability Office said in its report that VA offices have shifted resources away from appeals to handle claims in recent years, leading to lengthy appeals times.

Veterans organizations support the VA's move to a paperless claims system. But several of them testified in December at a U.S. House committee hearing that a new system alone is not the answer to better serving injured soldiers.

"While attention remains focused on the size of the … claims backlog, it is important to recognize that eliminating the backlog does not necessarily reform the claims processing system, nor does it guarantee that veterans will be better served," testified Jeffrey Hall, assistant national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans.

More information is on my blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/watchdog.

The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me by email at watchdog@mcall.com, by phone at 610-841-2364 (ADOG), by fax at 610-820-6693, or by mail at The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. Follow me on Twitter at mcwatchdog and on Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.

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