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New idea offered for easing VA claims backlog

By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Mar 13, 2007 21:29:29 EDT
http://www.airforcetimes.com/news/2007/03/tnsvaclaims070313

With the veterans’ disability claims system sagging under the weight of a growing backlog, partly caused by new claims from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, a Harvard University professor recommends a radical overhaul that would automatically pay disability compensation to any war veteran who applies.

Linda Bilmes of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who has been studying veterans’ medical care and disability benefits, said the current backlog of about 600,000 claims has overwhelmed a system that already was too slow and that things are only going to get worse. She predicts 250,000 to 400,000 claims will be filed over the next two years by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, creating a situation that she said “will rapidly turn the disability claims problem into a crisis.”

Her solution, which she discussed at a Tuesday congressional hearing, is that the VA “should accept and pay all disability claims” filed by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, accepting at “face value” a veteran’s statement that he or she has a service-connected disability. Since 88 percent of disability claims are approved anyway, Bilmes said that some spot-checking and audits would be enough to ensure the system is fair.

She also proposes changing the disability rating system, which ranks disability between 0 percent and 100 percent in increments of 10 percentage points, further divided into a four rankings: zero, low, medium or high disability. “This would immediately streamline the process, reduce discrepancies between regions and likely cut the number of appeals,” she said.

Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance, said the recommendations might help.

“The idea of giving veterans the benefit of the doubt sounds good to me,” Hall said at the hearing.

The VA’s approach to try to reduce the backlog of claims is to hire more claims processors, something the House committee generally has endorsed. In fact, Democrats and Republicans on the committee have each recommended the hiring of an additional 1,000 VA employees — on top of the roughly 500 more recommended by the Bush administration — in an effort to cut the backlog.

Bilmes said it takes two or three years to hire and train claims processors, providing little comfort to veterans who are looking for financial aid now, which is why she has more radical ideas.

Ronald Aument, the VA’s deputy under secretary for benefits, said it takes an average of four months to process a disability claim under the best of circumstances, and that priority is being given to processing claims for the most severely disabled combat veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The average processing time is 177 days, and the VA has a goal of cutting that to about 145 days, he said.

Aument said the VA handled 774,000 claims last year but received 806,382, which is why gaining ground is difficult. The number of veterans receiving disability claims has climbed from about 2.3 million in 2000 to 2.7 million in 2006, he said.

The claims backlog, along with other problems in medical care in the military and VA, are having a lasting effect on new veterans’ attitudes toward their government.

Brady Van Engelen, a wounded Iraq war veteran, said veterans and their families are suffering. “We may end up with an entire generation of veterans who have no faith in our VA because those running it — as well as those overseeing it — were unable to hold up their end of the bargain,” he said.

“We did not prepare for this, and it is painfully evident,” said Van Engelen. “My generation is going to have to pay for this, and we will be paying for years and years.”