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Rep. Miller doubts VA will clear claims backlog by 2015

May. 3, 2013 - 09:48AM   |  
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The backlog of veterans’ disability claims will not disappear in 2015, as promised by the Obama administration, the Republican chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee predicts in an interview to be broadcast Sunday.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., in an interview to appear as part of C-SPAN’s Newsmakers program, says the Veterans Affairs Department deserves credit for picking up the pace of processing so it is handling more than 1 million claims a year. But “they are falling further and further behind.”

The program airs at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Sunday.

VA has about 882,000 disability and compensation claims pending, including 583,000 older than the 125-day processing goal set by VA and about 250,000 claims at least one year old, according to VA records and statements.

It is taking, on average, 299 days to complete a claim. But speed depends on location, according to a Monday update on claims processing. In Los Angeles, the average time to complete a claim is a whopping 558 days. It takes 497 day in Reno, 495 in New York, 478 in Chicago, and 456 in Baltimore, the VA workload report shows.

In an effort to dramatically reduce the backlog, VA officials announced April 19 they intend to do a quick review of the oldest claims, those 365 days old or older, to try to assign a temporary disability rating so compensation payments can begin. The temporary rating could be adjusted within a year for veterans who provide additional information showing the provisional percentage rating is too low.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has described the oldest-first move as a key step toward eliminating the backlog of claims so processing will take no longer than 125 days by the end of 2015.

Miller doesn’t think the 2015 deadline is realistic. VA officials are “overestimating the ability of the department,” he said, adding that the solution rests with changing the VA’s culture. “We have employees who are not doing their job,” he said, suggesting that Shinseki needs a more hands-on leadership style to meet directly with the people processing claims.

Miller has called for the resignation of Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, and he has not changed his mind — although many veterans’ service organizations have rallied around her. “I still have very little confidence in Secretary Hickey to do the job,” he said.

He is not, though, calling for Shinseki to step down, saying he thinks the VA secretary, a former Army chief of staff, “is trying to do the right thing.”

Miller also acknowledges that his calls for Hickey to resign are unlikely to have any impact, noting she “does not work for me” and that Hickey, a retired Air Force brigadier general, “has said she is staying put.” Shinseki has told lawmakers he has no plans to ask Hickey to resign.

Miller isn’t the only person with doubts about VA’s plans to reduce the backlog by tackling the oldest claims first.

Joseph Moore, an attorney specializing in the handling of veterans’ disability claims, said veterans whose older claims are handled as part of this push might be disappointed.

“We are very concerned about VA’s new policy because VA staff are under tremendous pressure to quickly decide claims, and we expect VA to make more mistakes,” said Moore, a partner at the firm Bergmann & Moore. Mistakes could include “improper denials, low ratings, and underpayments,” and result in what he called a “flood of appeals from veterans” to get more compensation.

Moore said the VA plan also doesn’t help the veterans who have been waiting the longest — those who appealed a previous decision.

“We are disappointed that under VA’s dubious plan, VA ignores veterans’ appealed claims already sitting at VA regional offices,” he said.

Appealed claims, often related to post-traumatic stress or a veteran saying he is unemployable, “have languished for years and even decades while the veteran often goes without urgently needed VA healthcare and VA compensation,” Moore said, describing the VA’s proposal as “yet another quick and sloppy Band-Aid fix for a seriously wounded VA.”

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