House Passes Important VA Backlog Legislation

Could New Bipartisan House Bill Finally Lead to the End of the Claims Backlog?

In a refreshing departure from gridlock, lawmakers in Washington, DC are firmly pushing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to do right by the more than 1.3 million Veterans now trying to get their disability and other VA claims processed in a timely and accurate manner.

In what is a potentially monumental, beneficial decision for our Veterans, the House passed a bill this week to speed up the VA’s disability claims appeals process and mandate more visibility into the opaque, mountainous backlog of claims.

The bill calls for the establishment of a 15-member Commission that would examine ways to speed up the lengthy and mistake-prone process, reports Next.gov, by seeking out advice and assistance from Veterans Service Organizations, internet companies, and the insurance industry, among others.

The Senate would still need to approve the bipartisan bill and the President would need to sign it before the commission is created.  This bill represents a critical step for our Veterans and their families who’ve been negotiating the VA’s treacherous terrain by providing urgently needed oversight and solutions to VA’s chronic, vexing problems.

Overall, Little Progress at VA, as 1.3 Million Claims Languish

An important aspect of the discussion about VA is defining the agency’s “backlog.”  VA narrowly and incorrectly defines the backlog as only new and reopened claims pending more than 125 days, or 405,656 claims as of October 28, 2013.   VA’s incomplete definition is misleading, as it accounts for less than one third of VA’s pending claim inventory.

While the backlog is shrinking, and that is good, VA neglects to simultaneously inform the public that the backlog other types of claims continues rising as VA shifts workers from appealed and dependency claims to work on new and reopened claims.

Here is the bigger, more accurate picture of VA’s challenge:  Bergmann & Moore refers to VA’s challenges as the “claim delay and error crisis” because all pending claims should be discussed, too.  That means including other claims for which Veterans continue to wait for answers from VA.

According to VA’s reports, the total number of Veteran claims pending as of October 28, including new, reopened, appealed, dependency, and accrued claims requiring a VA decision, is 1,383,539:

* 711,775.  New and reopened claims pending, averaging one year to complete, where VA makes mistakes in 30% of claims, according to VA’s Office of the Inspector General.

* 262,622.  Claim appeals pending, averaging four years to complete, where 75 percent of appeals were granted or were returned by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals to VA’s regional offices for additional work.

* 393,575.  Award adjustments pending (for example, where a Veteran adds a dependent spouse or child to an already approved claim).

* 15,567.  Accrued claims pending (for example, where Veteran died while the claim was pending).

Rare Bipartisan Support for VA Claims Commission

“Today, in a shining example of how our legislative process is supposed to work, Republicans and Democrats came together to support a range of legislation with two overarching goals: helping veterans, while improving accountability and efficiency at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC), said in a statement on Tuesday.

Miller (R-FL) said the need for this legislation was “further underscored last week by the news that VA missed its fiscal year 2013 processing goal by nearly 100,000 claims. By creating a task force of private industry leaders, VA and VSO officials, we hope to establish a revised, evidence-based process that will help VA break its claims backlog once and for all in 2015, just as department leaders have promised.”

Echoing Miller’s sentiment was Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME), the Ranking Democrat on HVAC:  “VA’s backlog of claims impacts Veterans in Maine and all across our country, and there is no easy quick fix. While progress is being made, this legislation provides the VA with the additional tools it needs to help reach its goal of ending the backlog by 2015.”

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