Too many Veterans have waited too long for a decision on their benefits claims. We at VA, many of us Veterans ourselves, know that has never been acceptable. That is why we are implementing an aggressive plan to end the backlog of disability claims in 2015. Today we are announcing another decision to do right by Veterans.
Effective today, every regional office will begin implementing an initiative to ensure that those who have been waiting a year or more for their compensation claim receive a decision quickly. VA raters will make provisional decisions on the oldest claims in inventory, which will allow Veterans to begin collecting compensation benefits more quickly, if eligible.
I want to be clear about what Veterans and their families can expect in a provisional decision. It will provide them with applicable benefits much more quickly. It will provide an additional one-year window to submit further evidence should it become available. Should a Veteran submit additional evidence, their case will be fast tracked. Should a medical examination be needed to decide the claim, it will be ordered and expedited by VA’s health administration. And should any increase be determined over that year, benefits will be retroactive to the date the claim was initially filed. More information on provisional decisions is available here.
As we focus on the oldest claims in our inventory, we will continue to prioritize claims for homeless Veterans and those with extreme financial hardship, the terminally ill, former Prisoners of War, Medal of Honor recipients, and Veterans filing Fully Developed Claims. Also, those who can no longer serve in the military because of combat wounds, or other non-combat injuries or illnesses, will continue to have their disability compensation processed through the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES), which is separate and distinct from the inventory of claims impacted by this initiative. Wounded, ill and injured Service members on average receive their disability compensation within two months of leaving the military.
It is important to understand up front that as a result of this initiative, metrics that VA posts on its website, those used to track benefits claims, will experience significant fluctuations. The focus on processing the oldest claims will cause the overall measure of the average length of time to complete a claim—currently 286 days— to skew, rising significantly in the near term because of the number of old claims that will be completed. Often our oldest claims are our most complex claims. Also, what we call the Average Days Pending or the average age of claims in the inventory—will begin to decrease because the oldest claims will no longer be part of the inventory.
By making decisions on the oldest claims, VA will become more efficient. Simultaneously, more of our regional offices will come online and begin processing claims electronically with our Veterans Benefits Management System. Currently 36 of 56 of our regional offices have transitioned to this paperless system which too will reduce the time it takes for Veterans and their families to receive a high quality decision.
Last month, as I laid out some of the challenges we face in reducing the backlog, I outlined several of the other initiatives in place to end the backlog, among them among them: eBenefits, a joint VA-DoD client services portal that allows users to file benefits claims online, Disability Benefits Questionnaires, documents designed to capture all the needed medical information relevant to a specific condition, and information on how to file a Fully Developed Claim which allows claims to be processed through our express lane.
Over the last three years, VA has solicited and evaluated thousands of ideas from our employees and stakeholders. We have identified the best and they have formed the basis of today’s VBA Transformation Plan.
VA has completed over 4.1 million claims since 2009 and provided over $58 billion in disability compensation to 4.3 million Veterans and their survivors in 2012 alone – about $150 million every day. At no time in our history have our Veterans received more direct compensation payments. Still, more work remains.
The compensation claims backlog is a decades old problem. We have studied it carefully and engaged with Veterans Service Organizations and others to determine the right approach—one that we’re working hard to implement right now.
Allison Hickey, a retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General, is VA’s Under Secretary for Benefits.