Veterans deserve better

Wednesday November 14, 2012

R. James Nicholson and Thomas G. Bowman

Hundreds of thousands of veterans are experiencing excessive delays as they await decisions on their disability claims. These veterans, as The New York Times reported a few weeks ago, are being asked by the Department of Veterans Affairs to be patient while it attempts to transform its claims processes. The department is implementing new processes and technology that it hopes will break the backlog by 2015.

Our veterans deserve better than this. As of Sept. 22, the VA had nearly 900,000 claims awaiting decisions, with close to 600,000 -- two-thirds -- of them having exceeded the department’s own modest goals of timeliness.

The VA is trying to modernize its claims process by improving training, creating special teams to handle complex claims and replacing paper with digital technology. Modernizing is a must, but asking our veterans, who have sacrificed so much for our nation, to be patient while the changes are made is unreasonable. There are better short-term solutions.

To start, the VA should look to Internal Revenue Service practices. When a taxpayer files for a refund, the IRS assumes the claim to be legitimate and refunds the money. The return is, of course, subject to an audit later. If we can assume this about taxpayers, why can’t we do the same for veterans and expeditiously respond in a preliminary way?

Today, when a veteran files a VA claim, it typically includes more than five physical or mental conditions that need to be individually evaluated and assessed. Except for a small subset of claims, in which one of the claimed disabilities meets strict evaluative criteria, VA policy is to rule on the claim only after all of the cited conditions have been assessed, no matter how long that may take. Put another way, for administrative convenience, the VA does not split a veteran’s claim and make interim or intermediate decisions -- even for conditions for which there is sufficient evidence for doing so.

This burdens veterans and their families. A timely interim decision on even one condition would allow a veteran filing a claim to immediately use VA health care, receive some disability compensation for injuries and have access to the rehabilitation, training and other benefits that the United States offers its disabled service members. The VA should immediately amend its process to provide expeditious interim decisions on disability claims.

In 2007, such a plan was developed to address the backlog and reduce the claims processing time for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It was never implemented, and the situation is much worse now.

The proposal uses existing benefits procedures but provides immediate, temporary benefits at the 30 percent disability rate to veterans who have a service-connected disability or disabilities resulting from an injury or disease incurred in the line of duty. To receive this expedited rating, veterans would need to prove only that one of their claimed disabling conditions is likely to cause a temporary impairment in their ability to be employed.

Veterans willing to accept this temporary rating would be required to acknowledge and accept a period -- not to exceed five years -- within which a final adjudication of their total claim would occur. Implementing this program would remove cases from the backlog and create a new status. Veterans who do not want to take part could choose to have their claims decided under existing procedures.

Within this five-year period, the VA would continue the readjustment process, continue to evaluate all claimed disabling conditions and decide the claim in detail. Once a final decision is made, the veteran would receive the rating and amount of compensation to which his total disability claim entitles him, including any appropriate adjustments.

Under this procedure, the processing time for expedited ratings would be no more than 60 days from filing to the first check. Besides giving veterans some immediate funding relief and access to VA services, the plan would enable most of the VA’s claims processors to spend their time developing claims for veterans with complicated disability issues while the department continues to modernize. This would ensure that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are fully supported in their transition from warriors to civilians.

The ever-increasing claims backlog and the resulting delays are destroying the trust that needs to exist between the VA and veterans. Without that trust, the department will cease to be our nation’s main advocate for veterans’ care and well-being. This is not what the American people want, and our veterans deserve better.

R. James Nicholson was secretary of veterans affairs from 2005-07. Thomas G. Bowman was chief of staff of the VA from 2005-08. This column appeared first in the Washington Post.


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