The backlog of disability claims for Veterans is getting a lot of media coverage, and everyone throughout VA, from the Secretary on down, has acknowledged that this is an urgent problem they are working to fix.
But it’s important for the American public to know that those Servicemembers who are separating from the military for wounds, injuries or illnesses have their own VA benefits process, and on average receive their disability compensation within three months of leaving the military.
This process, called the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES), started in 2007 when the Department of Defense (DOD) and VA collaborated to design a more seamless transition specifically for Servicemembers who could no longer continue with their military careers for medical reasons—which includes PTSD.
To support IDES, VA has dedicated staff to work exclusively on disability claims for this population. Because of this DOD/VA cooperation, VA can begin working the necessary documentation for disability compensation before a wounded, ill or injured Servicemember leaves the military—and provide benefits much faster. It’s also important to know that for severely wounded Servicemembers, the system provides case managers to work one-on-one to ensure all the transition needs are met—especially those of the family.
So if combat wounded, ill and injured Servicemembers are being taken care of within IDES, who is in the current claims inventory and backlog that we hear so much about? Basically, the inventory is made of up people who separated or retired from the military when their time was up. And now that they are in a Veteran status, they are claiming disability compensation for medical conditions incurred or aggravated while serving. This ranges from young troops getting out now to guys who served in World War II. There’s no time limit for filing, and there’s no limit on the number of claims you can file.
In fact, about 60% of the 845,000 pending disability claims are from Veterans for whom VA has already completed at least one claim. About 78% of those Veterans are already receiving monetary compensation at some level—and about half of those are rated with at least a 50% disability, receiving $1000 or more monthly. The other 40% of the total inventory are from Veterans filing for the first time. This 60/40 percent split is roughly the same proportion for claims that have been pending more than 125 days—i.e. the backlog. Also, many people—including reporters covering the story—attribute the growing number of claims to the wind-down of current conflicts.
In reality, only one in five claims in the inventory come from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. The largest portion is actually from Vietnam-era Veterans. That makes sense when you think about the fact that this cohort is now reaching the age where health conditions are worsening. Also, VA’s decision to presume service connection for a variety of medical conditions related to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, which was used in Vietnam, accounts for many of the claims in the current inventory. What is true about Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is that they are filing more complex claims than their predecessors—meaning each claim has many more medical conditions that VA needs to adjudicate. That’s understandable too, since this relatively small, all-volunteer force has undergone multiple deployments, with more wear and tear on their bodies.
The reality is that, for a variety of reasons, VA is receiving a lot more claims work now than it did in the past. And given the legal requirements VA has to substantiate the claims, the work is outpacing the capacity to process in a timely manner. That’s why it made the investment in new technology, processes and training that will result in a system that can accommodate a higher demand. A change of this magnitude takes time, but it is being built to last—and once it is fully up and running, it will change the way Veterans receive benefits for generations to come.
Patrick Mackin is the director of the Office of Corporate Communications at the Veterans Benefits Administration. He is also a retired U.S. Army colonel.