Late Breaking News
Plagued by VA Claims Backlog, Texas Funds Own Program to Speed Process
By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — Frustrated by the high level of backlogged VA claims in the state, Texas has developed “State Strike Force Teams” to gather required paperwork on claims to speed processing, officials from the state told Congress recently.
“Realizing the economic benefit in breaking through the backlog and the catastrophic condition of the current federal system, state leaders have authorized the state veteran component of the Texas Veterans Commission (TVC) to dedicate state assets to assist with the backlogged claims with a commitment of $1.5 million for the State Strike Force Teams,” said Steve Hernandez, McLennan County veterans service officer in Waco, TX.
Hernandez and other officials from Texas spoke at a recent hearing where lawmakers pondered whether outside help — such as from strike force teams — could be part of the solution to VA’s backlogged claims problems. The Texas Legislature created and funded the teams in late July to address the 68,612 backlogged claims in that state.
“By examining this process … we are hoping that this state strike force team will serve as a model to other states and perhaps even lead to the creation of a similar federal strike force team,” said Rep. Jon Runyan (R-NJ), chairman of the VA House Committee’s Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
The Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA) enthusiastically rolled out a transformation plan earlier this year to help process all claims within 125 days with 98% accuracy by 2015. Lawmakers remain skeptical, however, and the hearing on the Texas program underscored the ongoing concern that VA will be unable to get a handle on the backlog.
For Texas, the claims backlog has been particularly problematic. According to the VA, as of September 11, 75% of pending disability claims at the Houston Regional Office were considered backlogged, and 76% of claims were considered backlogged at the Waco Regional Office.
Texas Veterans Commission Chair Eliseo “Al” Cantu Jr., told the subcommittee that the backlog in the state has more than quadrupled from 2010. He added, it takes an average of 18 to 24 months to get a decision on a VA claim.
The new state strike force program consists of two teams of eight members at each of the two VA regional offices in Texas, according to James Richman, director of Claims Representation and Counseling at the Texas Veterans Commission. These teams gather and collect all required evidence in support of the claim so it is ready to be rated by VA without further delay.
“These 16 members will take cases that are over 125 days old and not only identify the development that still needs to be done but actually accomplish that development with the intention of handing [the claim] back to the VA completely ready to rate,” Richman said.
The strike force teams already are proving effective and, as of the hearing, had already reviewed 2,525 case files of backlogged claims, identifying and executing the necessary development needed, and delivered 852 claims to the VA, fully developed and ready to rate, he said.
“With the support of this subcommittee and federal funding, we believe that Texas and other states have the capability to successfully replicate and implement similar initiatives,” Richman said.
The concept for the teams was taken from practices and lessons learned from two previous projects done with the VA in Texas to deal with claims. A new piece added to the current process is Fully Developed Claims Teams that work to ensure new cases being filed by the Texas Veterans Commission Claims counselors are filed to VA in a fully developed status.
For its part, the VBA agreed with Texas officials that the partnership is helpful.
“In our pilot projects with TVC, VBA experienced positive outcomes. We believe there are greater opportunities to improve service and productivity in the new partnership with TVC. The broader scope with the new Strike Force Teams can assist VBA in decreasing the backlog in the Houston and Waco RO’s,” Diana Rubens, VBA deputy undersecretary for field operations, told the subcommittee.
Reducing the Backlog
Runyan wanted to know whether the Texas officials thought the processing time of claims is hampered by difficulties in accessing the necessary records needed to support the claims.
“Development is one of the toughest parts of the entire claims process. Anything we can do to get the VA quicker access to whatever records and documents from DoD — their service-treatment records — all those things can do nothing but improve the situation,” Richman said.
He added that he had no recommendations on how to make this process faster. “The bureaucracy is substantial,” he said.
The Texas officials told the subcommittee there is adequate cooperation between VA and the strike teams but also emphasized that bureaucracy slows down the process for veterans.
“The cooperation has been great,” Cantu said. “They have given us access to information that we would not have gotten, had we not developed a strong relationship with them in the past. … They continue to do well. However, the problem is the bureaucracy.”
While Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) said he thought it was too early to draw any conclusions about the Texas program, he asked what the Texas officials thought the “best thing” VA could do to address the backlog.
Richman responded that VA has instituted some wonderful processes but that they have been overregulated “to the point of nonfunctionality.” He said, for example, that a quality-review team reviews a claims case, then another quality review member reviews the review of the first team member’s work.
“It has created a paralysis of people being afraid to make a decision,” he said.
Runyan concluded the hearing by acknowledging that the Texas program is in its early stages but noted that providing VA with fully developed claims, as the Texas program is trying to do, “makes it easier.”
“The team approach to doing this, I think the state of Texas has taken an honest attempt at it to take care of our veterans. We have to have an open eye to this and know there are multiple solutions and ways to get there,” he said.