A Real Fix or Another Fiasco?

Bergmann & Moore Comments on VA’s New Promise to Complete Disability Claims Waiting More Than Two Years.

In a rare proactive step, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced last Friday that the besieged agency will identify and complete, by the end of June 2013, all of the estimated 50,000 Veterans’ claims languishing at VA for more than two years without a decision.

However, advocates wonder if the change is a real fix or if it will become a fiasco because VA seeks improved public relations.

VA’s current inventory hovers around 900,000 unfinished claims, including claims of 250,000 Veterans who’ve waited more than one year for an answer.

Reaction to the VA announcement was swift and positive, yet also cautious and guarded, especially in Baltimore, Maryland, where VBA’s backlog is among the worst in the nation.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which provided $140 billion in 2013 funding for VA, praised the new initiative.  Mikulski, the first woman to chair the prestigious committee, told Yvonne Wenger at the Baltimore Sun, “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.”

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.”

Bergmann & Moore’s Paul Sullivan weighed in on the issue, telling the Sun, “VA’s new policy sounds great, but we are worried it may backfire because it ignores older claims already waiting years on appeal.”

We truly hope this works. Sullivan told the Sun that VA’s “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.”

In addition, history has shown that when the agency focuses heavily on speed instead of quality, VA makes mistakes harming our Veterans, such as improper denials, low ratings, and improper effective dates.  VA errors cause additional appeals and re-opened claims to flood into VA.

Jim Dao at the New York Times reported how VA’s surprise announcement generated a mixture of hope and cynicism among both both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

In The Times story, Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL), chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, says that “while this new approach sounds promising, we will be monitoring it closely to make sure it’s good policy rather than just good P.R.”  Bergmann & Moore’s Paul Sullivan was also quoted by The Times.

VA’s announcement addressed two different groups of claims.  VA’s press release mentions VA’s new effort to complete claims aged more than one year.  However, in contrast, VA’s Fast Letter mentions only original (first-time) claims pending more than two years.

Of great importance to advocates, VA’s Fast Letter excludes any mention of processing claims on appeal at VBA, as too many of these continue gathering dust for years and even decades.

In addition to excluding appealed claims at Regional Offices, VA’s new policy does not address chronic, systemic weaknesses within VA, including short staffing, inadequate training, a lack of transparent oversight, obsolete regulations, and recent problems installing new computers.

For more information about these new VA policies, please read VA’s Fast Letter, Fact Sheet, and press release.

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