The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to quickly eliminate its backlog of older disability claims by assigning provisional ratings that take shortcuts in the normal approval process.
About 250,000 claims pending for more than a year will be handled in this unprecedented fashion under a plan announced April 19 by VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey that could put money in the pockets of veterans within months.
In the short term, Hickey said, the current average processing time for claims, 286 days, may rise, but she predicted a dramatic drop in the pile of about 804,000 pending disability compensation claims. About 570,000 pending claims are older than VA’s 125-day goal, but only about 250,000 are older than a year or more, VA spokesman Josh Taylor said.
Giving top priority to the oldest claims means newer claims will take longer to process, but Hickey said priority will be given to new claims from Medal of Honor recipients; former prisoners of war; terminally ill vets; troops separating through a “wounded warrior” program; and anyone filing a fully developed claim with help from a veterans service organization.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said VA’s idea “sounds promising” but it remains to be seen if it is “good policy rather than just good PR.”
“VA has a responsibility to make sure it doesn’t use this program as an excuse for letting average claims processing times continue their steady ascent indefinitely,” Miller said, noting he does not like the idea of shifting resources from processing new claims “just to clear out old ones.”
While there are concerns about the process, particularly the accuracy of hastily assigned disability ratings, the move was praised by lawmakers who have pressed VA on its claims backlog.
“I have a number of questions about how this program will be implemented,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., former chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and now chair of the Senate Budget Committee.
Still, Murray, who discussed the plan with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, said she’s pleased VA is acting, noting that the backlog “has never been a problem that lends itself to easy fixes.”
Among her concerns are what might happen to newer claims and what happens if the provisional claim ends up granting a rating that is too high, in effect overpaying a veteran.Hickey said provisional ratings will be based on available records, which would have to include proof of service and evidence of a disability, possibly including results of a medical examination by a private doctor. In some cases, she said, a VA medical exam could be required.
The temporary rating would become permanent after one year, unless more information becomes available to change the rating. There are procedures for vets to file new information to increase ratings but no procedures as yet about what to do if that new information leads VA to believe a provisional rating was too high, according to VA sources.
Shinseki who has promised to eliminate the claims backlog by the end of 2015, called this an “aggressive plan” and the “right thing to do now for veterans who have waited the longest.”
It is the kind of move long demanded by lawmakers. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, called it a “positive interim solution” but stressed that it “will not resolve the systematic challenges that face VA in the current processing model.”
“We have a way to go on solving the backlog, but I believe we will get there if Congress, VA, the unions and veteran support organizations work together,” Michaud said.