The Veterans Affairs Department has processed 22,000 out of the 42,000 disability claims that have languished for two years or longer, Allison A. Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, told a House VA Committee hearing today.
The 51 percent reduction occurred after VA kicked off a project on April 19 to eliminate the oldest claims in the backlog within 60 days. Hickey said the department expects to meet that goal.
VA decided to speed up processing of old claims by making a provisional decision to authorize payment to veterans who would then have a year to file additional evidence to support their case. Hickey said that only 5 percent of the old claims rated over the past month had a provisional rating.
Once VA clears out the oldest claims, Hickey said the department will start to work on claims backlogged between one and two years; officials expect to clear those within six months.
VA had 873,680 pending disability claims as of May 20, with 584,308 on file more than 125 days.
Hickey said the Defense Department has helped speed up processing of old claims by giving claims examiners direct access to the Pentagon’s electronic health record to search for additional medical evidence, if needed, to support claims. She added that for the past several months, Defense personnel have been co-located at Veterans Benefits Administration headquarters to assist in locating service medical records needed to support pending claims.
The Veterans Health Administration has put doctors on overtime to help winnow the oldest claims. Medical personnel have been conducting physical exams on weekends and some have been deployed to help with exams at hospitals that serve large veteran populations, Hickey said. The agency’s average processing time for returning completed exams has remained at 30 days or less since August 2011.
Hickey said Defense has agreed to provide a complete medical record to VA for personnel it discharges as of June 1, a step that will help process new claims quickly. She defined “complete” as documentation that includes the service treatment record and records from private clinicians who provide care for service members under the TRICARE insurance plan.
If Defense fails to provide the complete medical records, Hickey said she will kick them back with a request for the missing information.
While members of the committee praised Hickey and the VA for cutting the old claims backlog in half, committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., cautioned that “VA must not shift resources and manpower away from processing new claims just to clear out older ones.”
“Every veteran deserves a thorough, fair and timely evaluation of their claim, regardless of when it was filed,” he said.