The Obama administration should focus on quality as much as quantity in reviewing veterans’ disability claims as it races to address a long-standing case backlog, according to a veterans group representing the latest generation of war fighters.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America released a report on Monday examining the massive claims inventory and how the government should address it, offering a list of recommendations that ranged from standardizing forms to considering the use of clinicians outside the Department of Veterans Affairs to assess individuals who file for benefits.
The Obama administration set a goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015, implementing a VA overtime “surge” in May to deal with the issue. The number of cases pending for more than 125 days has since decreased by nearly 37 percent after reaching a high of 600,000 in March, according to VA figures.
But a new problem has cropped up in the meantime, with appeals stacking up while the VA clears the deck of original claims.
“Efforts to decrease the backlog have had an unintended effect on the number of claims pending appeal,” the report said. “The need for more staff to review backlogged claims was satisfied in part by redistributing staff normally designated to work on appeals.”
The veterans group said the VA could reduce its appeals numbers through improved accuracy and by reviewing the effectiveness of its processes.
The VA’s undersecretary for benefits administration, Allison Hickey, testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in December that the agency has improved its claims accuracy from 83 percent to 90 percent since the summer of 2011.
The veterans group said the VA should also create a joint program with the Defense Department to expedite record-sharing between the two agencies, in addition to anticipating and planning for future needs and seeking feedback on how to improve the VA’s automated systems.
“The backlog may end in FY 2015, but the disability-compensation process will continue,” the report said. “If the VA does not learn from its mistakes, it is bound to repeat them.”
The VA said in a statement on Monday that it largely concurs with the analysis. “Many of the recommendations of this report are consistent with our goals … and reflect action already taken or underway,” the agency said. “We will continue to work with our partners and stakeholders to execute our plan to end the backlog.”
In his State of the Union address, President Obama vowed to continue addressing the VA’s caseload. “We’ll keep slashing that backlog so our veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned, and our wounded warriors receive the health care – including the mental health care – that they need,” he said.
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