By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — While VA is taking significant steps to digitize the disability claims process, advocacy groups warned lawmakers that the technological advances could have unintended consequences for veterans.
“We recognize the importance of technological advances to improve the VA claims process; however, any process implemented must be advantageous to the veteran. We appreciate VA’s efforts to expedite the claims process, but it cannot be on the backs of veterans,” American Legion Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division Deputy Director for Claims Zachary Hearn told lawmakers at a recent House VA subcommittee hearing.
The number of disability claims that are backlogged — claims pending longer than 125 days — has been a highly contentious issue with lawmakers and advocacy groups. They have demanded that VA do more to address the problem.
In response, VA has instituted several initiatives. This past May, the agency mandated overtime for claims processors to increase production of compensation claims decisions. Before that, VA launched an initiative to expedite disability compensation claims decisions for veterans who have waited a year or longer. In addition, its electronic claims paperless system has been fielded to all of its offices.
Since Feb. 2, 2013, the number of backlogged claims decreased from more than 600,000 to 397,122 as of Feb. 1.
“We’ll keep slashing that backlog so our veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned and our wounded warriors receive the healthcare, including the mental healthcare that they need,” President Barack Obama declared in his State of the Union address in January.
VA officials told lawmakers at the hearing that technology initiatives are playing an important role in its increased production and quality of processing claims. VBA Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations Diana M. Rubens said that. through the shared DoD/VA portal called eBenefits, more than 40,000 compensation claims and 44,000 dependency claims have been submitted online since October of 2012 and the number of claims filed online is expected to increase.
In addition, VA’s web-based electronic claims processing system called Veterans Benefits Management System is allowing VBA to move away from paper-based to electronic claims processing.
“Currently, more than 78% of our claims inventory, which equates to 535,000 claims, can be processed electronically, which is an increase from 32% in June 2013,” Rubens told the panel.
Meanwhile, Defense Health Agency Director of Healthcare Operations and Chief Medical Officer Army Maj. Gen. Richard W. Thomas told the representatives that when it comes to transferring Service Treatment Records (STR) needed for the adjudication of claims from DoD to VA the process is moving away from paper. As of Dec. 31, 2013, the military services stopped mailing hard copies of DoD STRs to the VA and, on Jan 2, 2014, started scanning these records, he explained in written testimony.
Disability Claims Process
Advocacy groups and lawmakers voiced concern about whether veterans uncomfortable with computers could be at a disadvantage in the claims process.
“A lot of our veterans are more senior and not very computer savvy. So they would require some hands-on training walking through with computers. Do you have those training workshops, not just lectures or panels or flyers but actual training for veterans?” Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA) asked Rubens.
“We will work with them to show them, whether that is at an outreach event or in our regional office to show them how to get into eBenefits and use it,” Rubens responded.
Especially worrisome to advocacy groups is a recent VA proposed rule that might benefit veterans filing claims electronically over those who file by paper.
Currently, a veteran can submit an “informal claim,” such as a hand-written note to VA, to indicate their intent to file a claim. The VA will then send the veteran an application to complete and, if benefits are due, the effective date can be as early as the date of the informal claim.
Under the new proposal, VA would require all claims to be filed on standardized forms, which can be done on paper or electronically. Veterans initially submitting an informal claim will no longer have an effective date for benefits tied to that communication but to the date that a completed standardized form is submitted. Meanwhile, veterans who file an incomplete form electronically will be able to preserve their initial filing date as long as they complete the required form within a year.
“VA elects to penalize claimants who do not have a computer, access to the Internet, an eBenefits account or just like to sit at the kitchen table and complete a paper form,” Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States’ National Veterans Service Deputy Director Gerald Manar said in written testimony.
Disabled American Veterans’ Assistant National Legislative Director Jeffrey Hall told lawmakers that, while his organization has no problem with a standardized form, eliminating recognition of the informal claim could lead to a loss of thousands of dollars for the veteran who initially files an incomplete claim on paper.
“Whether this is meant to encourage veterans to file their claims electronically, clearly there will be veterans who stand to lose their rightful benefits,” Hall told lawmakers in written testimony.
Meanwhile, Rubens told lawmakers that VA gave the public the opportunity to comment on the proposed rule and is reviewing the comments.
“VA is carefully reviewing the 53 comments we have received from stakeholders and will be responding to them in accordance with regular Administrative Procedure Act procedures,” she said.