Injured soldiers battle disability claims backlog
In addition to coping - until recently - with mold and unsanitary conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, some injured soldiers face financial problems because the Department of Veterans Affairs struggles to approve disability claims in a timely manner.
The problem is not new, but lawmakers are paying more attention to the backlog of claims at the VA as warfighters return from Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA's inability to process disability claims quickly has caused veterans to wait for as long as two years before they receive funds to pay for their living expenses and other financial needs.
Last year, the VA received 800,000 applications from recently returned soldiers and longtime veterans. Those applications are in addition to the existing backlog of 378,000 veterans' claims that can't be processed without additional information.
"While VA made progress in fiscal years 2002 and 2003 reducing the size and age of its pending claims inventory, it has lost ground since then," said Daniel Bertoni, acting director of education, workforce and income security issues at the Government Accountability Office. The VA has difficulty obtaining the military service records it needs for deciding claims, Bertoni said.
Despite those challenges, the VA said it resolved or provided adjustments for 2 million claims last year and took steps to improve claims processing.
Under the best circumstances, a claim takes four months to complete - to obtain military and private records, schedule medical exams, receive results and evaluate evidence, said Ronald Aument, the VA's deputy undersecretary for benefits. Appeals can take two years, he added.
"VA is continuing to focus on reducing the pending workload and improving the overall timeliness of processing for all veterans," Aument testified at a recent hearing of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee.
The VA and the Defense Department have taken steps to fix some of the problems in processing disability claims. To speed service delivery, the VA set up Benefits Delivery at Discharge, a trial project begun last year to collect electronic versions of service members' disability claim applications, service medical records and other evidence before service members leave the military. The disability claims forms ask for information about disabling injuries and the connection between military service and the injury.
DOD is sharing service members' demographic data with the VA through a direct feed to the VA-DOD Identity Repository, said Robert Reynolds, executive management officer for policy and programs at the Veterans Benefits Administration. The data includes the member's name, service locations, date of discharge and the combat data necessary for all VA benefit claims.
"Our objective is that we will have the DD form 214 [DOD discharge] data in computable format," Reynolds said.
DOD is creating a module in its Joint Patient Tracking Application for the VA so that it can track severely injured returning service members, Reynolds said. That veteran tracking application will give VA case managers the medical history they need before they can process benefit claims.
Last month, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson ordered priority processing of disability claims for all injured veterans on active duty and serving in National Guard and Reserve units who are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.