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Unacceptable: Some Veterans Are Waiting Up to 506 Days for Benefits

more from Sarah Jones
Friday, March, 29th, 2013, 8:00 am

disabled veterans wheel chair

Senator Boxer is leading a bipartisan group urging the Deptartment of Defense to work more effectively with the VA to give our disabled veterans the care worthy of their sacrifice.

In a letter, the Senators pointed out how long some of our veterans wait for care, writing, “We represent states with some of the largest populations of veterans in the country. Tragically, these men and women are also waiting years to access the benefits they need and deserve—449 days on average in New York, 506 days in Los Angeles, and 439 days in Waco, according to VA. This is simply unacceptable.”

According to testimony given on March 13, 2013 before the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in the Senate, the average wait time for a claim to be processed was 260 days in fiscal year 2012.

U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sent a letter Thursday to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel urging greater cooperation between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to help address the severe backlog of veterans’ disability claims.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that delays in obtaining service and medical records from the Department of Defense have “significantly lengthened” the VA claims process for disabled veterans.

A December 2012 Government Accountability Office (GOA) study explained the many challenges facing the VA, “As the population of new veterans has swelled in recent years, the annual number of claims received by VBA has gone up. Compared to the past, these claims have a higher number of disabling conditions, and some of these conditions, such as traumatic brain injuries, make their assessment complex.

“Moreover, due to new regulations that have established eligibility for benefits for new diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, VBA adjudicated 260,000 previously denied and new claims. Beyond these external factors, issues with the design and implementation of the compensation program have contributed to timeliness challenges.

“Further, VBA’s paper-based claims processing system involves multiple hand-offs, which can lead to misplaced and lost documents and can cause unnecessary time delays. Concerning timeliness of appeals, VBA regional offices have shifted resources away from appeals and toward claims in recent years,which has led to lengthy appeals timeframes.”

The GOA study recommended, “GAO recommends that VBA (1)partner with military officials to reduce timeframes to gather records from National Guard and Reserve sources,(2) partner with SSA to reduce timeframes to gather SSA medical records, and (3) ensure the development of a robust plan for its initiatives that identifies performance goals that include the impact of individual initiatives on processing timeliness. In response to a draft of this report, VA officials generally agreed with GAO’s conclusions and concurred with the recommendations, and summarized efforts that are planned or underway to address the recommendations.”

In their letter, the Senators acknowledged that the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have taken some steps to address this issue, including an agreement that the Defense Department will provide complete records for departing service members in an electronic and searchable format by the end of this year. According to VA officials, this move could reduce the length of time it takes to review disability claims by 60 to 90 days.

“These are important steps, but it is clear that more must be done to improve the timeliness of record exchanges and to expand cooperation between VA and the Department of Defense,” the Senators wrote. “As such, we ask that you affirm your commitment to eliminating the disability backlog through continued and greater collaboration with VA.”

It is morally unconscionable that our veterans have to wait so long for the care they have earned. When many of our veterans finally come home, they have to fight yet another battle to get the benefits they were promised.

The full text of the Senators’ letter follows:

March 28, 2013

The Honorable Chuck Hagel
Department of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301-1000

Dear Secretary Hagel:

We write today to express our deep concern regarding the severe backlog of veterans’ disability claims facing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and to urge greater cooperation between VA and the Department of Defense to help end this crisis. We represent states with some of the largest populations of veterans in the country. Tragically, these men and women are also waiting years to access the benefits they need and deserve—449 days on average in New York, 506 days in Los Angeles, and 439 days in Waco, according to VA. This is simply unacceptable.

As a combat veteran, you have a deep personal understanding of the challenges currently facing our nation’s veterans. We know you share our commitment to ensuring all veterans receive the benefits they deserve in a timely and accurate manner. However, we are concerned that lengthy delays by the Department of Defense in gathering and sharing military service records with VA are contributing to lengthy processing timeframes and, in turn, to the increase in the disability claims backlog.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that “delays in obtaining military service and medical treatment records, particularly for National Guard and Reserve members, have significantly lengthened the evidence gathering phase.” According to GAO, these delays “impact VA’s duty to assist, possibly delaying a decision on a veteran’s disability claim.” Veterans service organizations have voiced similar concerns. This is troubling particularly because such delays can prevent veterans from obtaining the benefits they deserve.

We are encouraged that VA and the Department of Defense have taken some steps to address this issue. Specifically, we understand that the two agencies initiated a Disability Claims Reduction Task Force earlier this year to help reduce the time it takes to gather military service records from the service departments.

We also understand that VA has an agreement with the Department of Defense to implement an electronic, searchable catalogue of military records for all transitioning service members by the end of this year. During her recent testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey stated that this agreement “has potential to cut as much as 60-90 days from the ‘awaiting evidence’ portion of claims processing, and reduce the time needed to make a claim ‘ready for decision’ from 133 days currently to 73 days” for transitioning service members.

These are important steps, but it is clear that more must be done to improve the timeliness of record exchanges and to expand cooperation between VA and the Department of Defense. As such, we ask that you affirm your commitment to eliminating the disability backlog through continued and greater collaboration with VA. We also ask that you dedicate appropriate resources and personnel to ensure timely exchanges of all military service records.

Thank you for your attention to this critical issue. We look forward to working with you, as well as with VA Secretary Shinseki, to eliminate the disability claims backlog once and for all.

Sincerely,

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

John Cornyn
United States Senator

Bill Nelson
United States Senator

Kirsten E. Gillibrand
United States Senator

Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator

Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator

cc: The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs




Unacceptable: Some Veterans Are Waiting Up to 506 Days for Benefits was written by Sarah Jones for PoliticusUSA.
© PoliticusUSA, Fri, Mar 29th, 2013 — All Rights Reserved


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