By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON – While VA is under heavy pressure from lawmakers to reduce the claims backlog and process claims faster, the agency is not the only one to blame for these delays, according to the DoD Office of Inspector General (IG).
A recent DoD IG audit found that DoD has not consistently transferred timely and complete service treatment records (STR) to the VA. Those records are necessary to support veteran benefit claims.
Specifically, the IG reported that the 77% of the service treatment records transferred by the DoD from January to December 2013 were not handed over in a timely fashion—meaning they were not sent within 45 days—and 28% were incomplete.
For the Air Force, specifically, of the 45,912 STRs transferred to the VA from January to December 2013, 35% were not conveyed within 45 days and 11% were not complete.
While the Navy and Marine Corps did not maintain “sufficient data” to determine results from that time period, according to the report, data provided for July and August 2013 indicated that of the 3,217 STRs transferred to the VA, 1,479 were not transferred within 45 days. In addition, the Navy was not maintaining the data necessary to determine whether the STRs were complete.
“DoD’s failure to consistently make timely and complete service treatment records available to the VA likely contributed to delays in processing veterans’ benefit claims,” stated a memo from the DoD assistant inspector general which accompanied the report.
The audit was ordered to determine whether DoD was effectively transferring service treatment and personnel records to VA.
The report comes amidst efforts to reduce the disability claims backlog by the VA. The department announced this summer that it had completed its one millionth disability claim in fiscal year 2014 and was on track to complete more than 1.3 million claims this year. The VA also announced in July that it had reduced the claims backlog by more than 55% from its peak of 611,000 in March 2013.
“At the same time, the accuracy of rating decisions continues to improve. VA’s national “claim-level” accuracy rate is currently 91%—an eight-percentage-point improvement since 2011,” VA said in a written statement.
The DoD IG pointed out that the VA claims process “is contingent upon DoD providing sufficient evidence to support the veteran’s claim.”
“If the VA does not receive sufficient evidence to process a claim, the agency will request additional information from the veterans’ service point of contact. In 2013, the VA reported that 58% of benefit claims took 125 days or more to process. Returning the claim to DoD for additional evidence adds to the processing time. The VA’s goal for 2015 is to process benefit claims within 125 days or less,” the report stated.
The DoD IG report suggested that the DoD delays have occurred because “DoD did not provide the military departments with clear or comprehensive guidance concerning the STR transfer process, to include the DoD-VA agreed upon procedure for certifying STR completeness.”
“In addition,” according to the document, “the Army Reserve, National Guard, and the Navy had inefficient procedures in place for transferring STRs.”
For the Army, MTFs as well as the central cells, out-processing centers responsible for transferring the records to VA, contribute to the untimely transfers, the IG’s office pointed out.
“During a site visit to an Army MTF in December 2013, we found several boxes of STRs for servicemembers who separated from the military as far back as July 2011. According to the MTF staff, the central cell asked them to keep the STRs because there was no room at the central cell and that the MTF could just wait and process the STRs using the new paperless system that was to be in place after January 1, 2014. At the central cell, the program manager stated that ensuring an STR was complete took precedence over timeliness and that they would sacrifice timeliness in an attempt to ensure completeness,” the report stated.
The DoD IG also described inefficient procedures used in the Army Reserve, National Guard, and the Navy for transferring the STRs.
“The Army Reserve and National Guard were scanning STRs that were already available in an electronic system and the Navy was mailing hard copy STRs to two different facilities before they were mailed to a third facility for scanning,” the report documented.
In response, DoD officials agreed with IG recommendation to revise its instructions on certifying STRs as complete and said that a draft DoD Instruction has been updated and was to have begun coordination last month. In addition, DoD agreed with the recommendation to require the military departments to perform annual reviews of STRs with military personnel to ensure the records are complete.