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VA aims to eliminate claims backlog by 2015

The Veterans Affairs Department plans to completely eliminate its disability claims backlog by 2015, despite a sharp increase in claims filed during the past several years, VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich told a media roundtable on Friday.

VA expects to receive about 1.2 million claims for 2010, acting Undersecretary for Benefits Mike Walcoff told attendees at the briefing. The department currently faces a backlog of 274,142 cases awaiting a ratings review by claims examiners, according to a Dec. 13 weekly report.

Before VA approves a disability claim, ratings specialists must examine often voluminous medical files to determine if a veteran is entitled to compensation and the amount of payment. The backlog is the number of claims still pending after 125 days.

Gingrich said VA plans to adopt the same kind of technology used in the new system for processing claims from Vietnam veterans exposed to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange to handle a wider range of disability cases. IBM developed the Agent Orange system, which went live this November.

The new approach features rules-based software to help automate the ratings process, and takes advantage of online medical examination forms from private physicians, eliminating the need for veterans to have an exam in a VA hospital, which could delay the claims process.

Renewed efforts to eliminate the backlog come as VA faces an increasing volume of claims. Since VA added a list of illnesses related to Agent Orange this March, it has received 200,000 claims. The department also streamlined and simplified the process for veterans to file claims for post-traumatic stress disorder this July, and since then PTSD claims have been running about 14,000 a month.

Gingrich noted technology alone will not help VA reduce its backlog. The department's culture also must change and focus on service to the veteran and foster employee innovation, he said.

Walcoff said VA employees recently came up with good ideas to speed the claims process, including developing a calculator that automates the steps for determining the compensation owed for varying degrees of hearing loss.

Walcoff said this calculator, developed in-house at the suggestion of an employee, can in the future expedite the claims process for nine other conditions, which he did not specify.

VA plans to kick off a procurement for a paperless and completely automated Veterans Benefit Management System in 2011, Mark Bologna VBMS director, said at the press briefing. He did not provide additional details.

Peter Levin, VA chief technology officer, said the department already has run 45 pilot programs to improve claims processing, some focused on speed and others on quality.

Friday's media roundtable marked the start of monthly sessions top VA officials plan to hold. "We want an open dialogue about our challenges and things we may not have done well," Gingrich said. VA "recognizes many veterans are frustrated" in their interactions with the department, "but we have turned the corner," he added.

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