USA — Veterans Affairs Works to Reduce Claims Backlog

WASHINGTON — The Vet­er­ans Affairs Depart­ment is mak­ing great strides in its efforts to reduce the back­log of vet­er­ans’ claims, VA Sec­re­tary Eric K. Shin­se­ki today told thou­sands of vet­er­ans attend­ing the 92nd Annu­al Amer­i­can Legion Nation­al Con­ven­tion in Mil­wau­kee.

“We intend to break the back of the back­log this year,” Shin­se­ki said.

The aver­age time tak­en to process claims in VA is about 160 days. But by the end of the year no claim will take longer than 125 days, Shin­se­ki said. VA doesn’t plan to stop once the claims are processed by that mark, he added.

“Our goal is not an aver­age,” Shin­se­ki said. “It’s not just going to be faster; also bet­ter and more accu­rate. There’s noth­ing mag­i­cal about 125 days, espe­cial­ly because when we get there, we’ll be look­ing at anoth­er tar­get.”

VA received more than 1 mil­lion claims in 2009 for the first time in the department’s 80-year his­to­ry. Dis­abil­i­ty claims for VA increased 75 per­cent between 2000 and 2010. That’s an aver­age of near­ly 100,000 new claims each month, with no signs of slow­ing down, the sec­re­tary said.

VA health care pro­fes­sion­als expect to treat and pro­vide care for more than 6.1 mil­lion vet­er­ans in 2011, Shin­se­ki said, includ­ing near­ly half-a-mil­lion Iraq and Afghanistan war vet­er­ans.

In order to meet those vet­er­ans’ needs, he said, VA hired more than 3,500 claims work­ers this year in the Vet­er­ans Ben­e­fits Admin­is­tra­tion. VA also invest­ed more than $130 mil­lion toward estab­lish­ing a paper­less claims process, which, Shin­se­ki said, will be ready in 2012.

More than $110 mil­lion this year, he added, was invest­ed in tele-health tech­nol­o­gy, which includes tech­nol­o­gy for the vir­tu­al life­time elec­tron­ic records sys­tem. VA expects to spend $163 mil­lion on these pro­grams next year, Shin­se­ki said.

“We see this as the way to link [the Defense Depart­ment] and VA in a seam­less tran­si­tion as young­sters take off the uni­form,” he said.

Among VA’s accom­plish­ments this year, Shin­se­ki not­ed improved care for vet­er­ans who suf­fer from Agent Orange- and Gulf War-relat­ed ill­ness­es. Three new dis­eases were deter­mined to be con­nect­ed to Agent Orange, while nine new dis­eases were includ­ed in the Gulf War ill­ness group, he said.

Con­gress last year appro­pri­at­ed $13.4 bil­lion to begin ben­e­fits pay­ments for some 2,000 vet­er­ans expect­ed to claim Agent Orange-relat­ed dis­eases.

“It was the right deci­sion,” Shin­se­ki said, “and the pres­i­dent and I are proud to final­ly pro­vide this group of vet­er­ans, our Viet­nam [War] vet­er­ans, the care and ben­e­fits they’ve long deserved.”

Also, the claims process is now eas­i­er for those affect­ed by post-trau­mat­ic stress, Shin­se­ki added. Vet­er­ans no longer have to pro­vide doc­u­men­ta­tion of the event that may have caused their stress, he said.

“This deci­sion ends decades of focus­ing on doc­u­ment­ing the stres­sor event,” Shin­se­ki said. “Instead, we’re stream­lin­ing the deliv­ery of med­ical care and ben­e­fits for vet­er­ans suf­fer­ing from ver­i­fi­able PTS from com­bat.

“This is not a gen­er­a­tional issue,” he con­tin­ued. “This is not Iraq or Afghanistan; it is all who have served in com­bat.”

VA boost­ed its staff of men­tal health providers by 20,000 since Oba­ma took office, Shin­se­ki said.

“Our pri­or­i­ty here is to diag­nose, treat and cure,” he con­tin­ued. “If cure is not pos­si­ble, then diag­nose, treat and care will be the stan­dard.”

Dur­ing his address, Shin­se­ki also not­ed VA’s work to end home­less­ness among vet­er­ans by 2015. Since 2004, VA has reduced the num­ber of home­less vet­er­ans by 90,000. At least 107,000 vet­er­ans remain on the streets today.

Shin­se­ki also empha­sized the impor­tance of good fis­cal stew­ard­ship. He high­light­ed VA’s suc­cess­es and improve­ments under Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s admin­is­tra­tion.

Oba­ma pro­posed $25 bil­lion in bud­get increas­es for the VA since 2009. Such sup­port “under­scores the president’s com­mit­ment to trans­form­ing VA and fix­ing per­sis­tent prob­lems that have plagued this depart­ment for decades,” Shin­se­ki said.

The pres­i­dent pro­posed $125 bil­lion for VA’s fis­cal 2011 bud­get, Shin­se­ki said, which will focus pri­mar­i­ly on the end­ing the claims back­log and home­less­ness.

VA must be with­out hes­i­ta­tion an advo­cate for vet­er­ans,” Shin­se­ki said. “This is part of a cul­ture change that’s under way. We need to make per­ma­nent the gains of the past 19 months.

“There will always be unfin­ished work,” he added. “That’s the nature of the mis­sion, but for all of us, it is to con­tin­ue to estab­lish pri­or­i­ties, fight for resources and take care of vet­er­ans. That’s what we intend to do.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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