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With the backlog of compensation claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs having ballooned in recent years, one would expect major veterans service organizations to be among VA’s harshest critics. If so, they would join a rising chorus. Recently, network news programs have turned cameras and commentary on the mountain of 598,000 overdue claim decisions pending, suggesting bureaucratic neglect of returning ill and injured vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Time magazine columnist Joe Klein even asked VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. One veteran association, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), says the administration isn’t doing near enough to end the backlog with its average wait, from filing to decision, now at 273 days and some veterans in the largest cities reportedly waiting more than 600 days. But most veteran service organizations aren’t joining that chorus, for perhaps two major reasons.
One, they believe they understand better than the loudest critics why the backlog has grown so. Some contributing factors these veterans groups actually fought for. Two, criticism of Shinseki and his team rings hollow to many veteran groups given the administration’s support over the past four years for robust funding of VA, unprecedented cooperation with vet advocates, and the depth of its commitment to reform a 20th Century paper-driven claims process. That’s why groups including Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion came to Shinseki’s defense after Klein’s call to resign. That’s why Joseph Violante, legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that VA is moving “down the right path” with many of its reform plans even while “processing over a million claims annually, which in my mind is something phenomenal.” Violante described VA leadership as the most open he has seen in almost 30 years working veterans issues in Washington D.C. He had particular praise for Allison A. Hickey, under secretary for benefits. At the same hearing, Bart Stichman, executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, praised Shinseki.
The NVLSP successfully has sued VA, initially more than 20 years ago, to compensate Vietnam veterans for diseases presumed caused by wartime exposure to herbicides including Agent Orange. Stichman said Shinseki showed courage when, facing a rising claims backlog in 2009, he added three new diseases to VA’s list of diseases compensable for Vietnam veterans due to Agent Orange. This required VA to re-adjudicate 150,000 claims previously denied and to process more than 100,000 fresh claims from Vietnam veterans, including for most anyone with heart disease who ever served in Vietnam. The Veterans Benefits Administration put more than 2,300 experienced claims staff — 37 percent of its workforce — on the effort for two and a half years, paying out more than $4.5 billion in retroactive benefits. “While the decision was absolutely the right thing to do,” Hickey said, “it did have an impact on our ability to keep up with news claims coming in and on aging claims already in the system.”
One of Klein’s criticisms is that VA should be giving priority to claims from returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans versus the steady stream of “supplemental” claims from older generations seeking to upgrade ratings. One factor encouraging supplemental claims from military retirees is Congress’ decision to lift the ban on concurrent receipt of both retired pay and VA disability compensation for retirees with ratings of 50 percent or higher. That threshold encourages some to file again and again for reconsideration given the financial stakes. Until a retiree is rated 50 percent disabled, their retired pay is offset dollar for dollar by VA disability compensation. VA claims data give some credence to Klein’s argument because 52 percent of the current backlog is veterans who had an earlier claim decided in the past five years. But critics also should note only 20 percent of backlogged claims are from Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Vietnam veterans represent 37 percent, 1991 Gulf War veterans 23 percent and 20 percent are claims from World War II, Korean War and peacetime-era veterans.
Hickey pointed to several developments that should allow VA to reach its two goals of eliminating the backlog by 2015 and raising the quality of claim decisions to an average accuracy rate of 98 percent, up from 86 percent in 2012. One is electronic claim processing through the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), which will be operating at all 56 regional offices by December. Hickey said this will result in faster and more accurate claim decisions, in the same way automation was used to end long waits for payments under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill. Also, military services now have teams collecting for the VA service and medical records, including from TRICARE civilian physicians, for former service members filing claims. And these teams are certifying to VA that files are complete and accurate. “That is a game changer,” Hickey said. VA continues a massive project of scanning into computers all paper claims so that adjudicators can use Google-like searches rather than physically flipping pages, to verify information. And VA also has established quality review teams at every regional office to monitor claims processing in real time to catch and correct errors before decisions become final.
All of this is encouraging the support of most veteran groups. But the political pressure on VA remains intense, and the generational rift among advocates likely won’t ease until the backlog is in full retreat. Joseph Thompson, who formerly held Hickey’s job as VA benefits chief, told senators that, for VA to meet its ambitious goals for 2015, every one of its many initiatives must succeed, which is an unlikely outcome. The quantity of claims, the unproven technology solutions and the vast number of other initiatives working, Thompson said, “is the heaviest lift I can imagine.” What VA needs most, Thompson said, “are more people … thousands more.” That is one initiative that Hickey said VA isn’t yet ready to embrace. (Source: Stars & Stripes | Tom Philpott | 4 Apr 2013 ++)
Backlog update 89
The Department of Veterans Affairs is under growing pressure to reduce a mountain of pending veteran disability claims, and a new voice has been added to the chorus — the U.S. Army. The Army has spent tens of millions of dollars and doubled staffing for a joint program with the VA aimed at cutting the Army’s backlog of soldiers waiting to leave the service because of being wounded, ill or injured. The number of ailing soldiers waiting to leave the service has grown from 18,000 in 2011 to more than 27,000, largely because the VA is not bringing more manpower to the task, Army officers told USA TODAY.
“The ideal situation would be if they could add some capacity. That means adding some people to do (disability) ratings,” says Brig. Gen. Lewis Boone, director of the Army’s disability evaluation system.
The VA says its resources are taxed to the limit trying to reduce its own caseload of 900,000 pending disability claims from veterans of all past and present wars. It cannot spare more rating evaluation specialists for the Army program, VA official Danny Pummill says.
“We’re providing the maximum effort that we can in both areas,” says Pummill, who coordinates VA efforts with the Pentagon. The Army backlog of soldiers waiting to leave the service because of health issues is not included in the VA’s 900,000 pending disability claims from veterans. The Pentagon and VA agreed in 2011 to fashion a “seamless” process for service members to separate from the military because of wounds, illness or injury. The idea was to conduct VA disability ratings for these troops before leaving the service so that within 30 days of becoming civilians, they would begin receiving VA disability checks. The Army faced the most daunting task. After years of multiple combat deployments and physical wear and tear, far more soldiers faced medical separations than sailors, Marines and Airmen combined. It was taking an average of 400 days for soldiers to go through medical examinations, evaluation boards, VA rating and out-processing before finally receiving disability checks as civilians.
Since 2011, there have been improvements, the Army says. Data show that some processes controlled by the Army are moving more quickly than expected. But the flow of cases is stalling in the VA portion of the assembly line. Army data show 6,500 soldiers were waiting to receive VA disability ratings in February, 80 percent more than what the program was designed to handle at that stage. The slowdown occurred even after the VA had increased the number of rating specialists handling Army cases from 119 in October to 135 in January, according to VA statistics.
“Right now, there is a bulge of cases sitting right there awaiting (VA) ratings,” says Army Col. Daniel Cassidy, a disability evaluation program director. As a result, the process was still taking 400 days on average, data show. Army officials says that unless the VA more quickly conducts disability ratings for ailing soldiers, the backlog could persist well into next year. It impacts the Army’s defense role, officers say, particularly as the service becomes smaller in the years ahead. The 27,000 soldiers awaiting medical separations cannot go to war, but cannot be replaced until gone. “It impacts readiness,” Cassidy says. (Source: USA TODAY | Gregg Zoroya | 4 Apr 2013 ++).
For further information on VA benefits, call or stop by the Archuleta County Veterans Service Office, located at the Senior Center in the Pagosa Springs Community Center, on Hot Springs Blvd.
The office number is 264-4013, fax number is 264-4014, cell number is 946-3590, and e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4, p.m. Monday through Friday. Bring your DD Form 214 (Discharge) for applications to VA programs or benefits for which the veteran may be entitled to enroll, and for filing in the Archuleta County VSO office.
The following veterans groups meet in Pagosa Springs:
American Legion Post 108: second Wednesday of the month, 7 p.m., 287 Hermosa St.
American Legion Post 108 Ladies Auxiliary: second Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m., 287 Hermosa St.
Veterans for Veterans: every Tuesday, 10 a.m., Quality Inn.
Women’s Group of Spouses of Veterans: every other Monday, 6 p.m., St. Patrick’s Episcopal Parish Hall, 225 S. Pagosa Blvd. Contact Charlotte, 731-1025.
Point Man Ministry (veterans): every Thursday, 9 a.m., Crossroads Church, 1044 Park Ave.
Durango VA Outpatient Clinic: 247-2214.
Farmington VA Center: (505) 327-9684.
The Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential support to veterans in crisis, as well as their family and friends 24/7, 365 days a year. Call (800) 273-8255, chat online, or text 838255.
Farmington VA Center: (505) 327-9684.