A House subcommittee voted Wednesday to support an independent review of the cause and possible remedy for the veterans’ disability claims backlog.
The move comes at a time when the backlog is shrinking, but the Veterans Affairs Department still is taking, on average, 243 days to process a claim.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s disability assistance panel also passed legislation allowing VA to begin giving partial disability compensation payments to veterans who file complicated claims if there are some easily decided issues involved, and to expand the use of private physicians to conduct compensation and pension examinations.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the full veterans’ committee, is the chief sponsor of HR 2189, the measure that would create a multi-agency task force to review the veterans’ claims backlog.
“What we need is an outside independent analysis to clearly identify, first, why the backlog exists, and even as important, if not more so, to prevent the backlog from ever occurring again,” Miller said.
The number of pending claims is falling, to 745,000 as of Monday, with 498,000 of those pending for longer than VA’s self-imposed goal of 125 days. That is down from a total of 823,000 pending disability claims at the start of the year, when 589,000 claims were 125 days old or older.
VA also is making progress both in processing its oldest claims and in improving claims accuracy. The accuracy rate on claims is 89 percent, the highest level recorded, according to congressional staffers.
And in an effort launched in April to reduce the backlog, VA has processed 97 percent of disability claims that are at least two years old and is now focusing on claims pending for one to two years, with 15 percent completed.
Miller acknowledges the progress but said, “I think now is not the time to take the foot off the gas. We need to continue moving forward.”
Alexander Nicholson, legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, described a “confidence deficit” among veterans that VA is on a path to eliminate the backlog with the many reforms of the claims process already underway.
“All of these are welcome reforms, but even VA admits that there are still snags and challenges with which it needs help,” Nicholson said.
There are some concerns about whether an independent review will only get in the way. Heather Ansley of VetsFirst, a national spinal injury association, said a review “narrowly focused” on current VA programs might help avoid mistakes.
But “we are concerned that a commission or task force might hinder VA’s current efforts by diverting resources from the overall push to address the backlog,” she said.
The Pay as you Rate Act, HR 2086, sponsored by Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., is aimed at requiring VA to pay benefits as medical conditions confirm disabilities, which would help veterans filing claims for multiple disabilities.
“Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan average 8.5 separate disabilities,” she said. “While some parts of these claims are complex and time consuming, some components are simpler. VA should compensate veterans for the simpler components as early as possible while continuing to work on the more complex aspects.”
Nicholson called this “the kind of common-sense approach to the disability claims process veterans deserve.”