Leave no veteran behind

The statistics are bleak.  There are 774,000 pending disability claims at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and the agency spends more than one year to complete each claim.

It goes sharply downhill from there.  VBA makes a mistake in 30 percent of claims, thus forcing veterans to appeal.  The troubling statistic VA and the White House ignores is that there are an additional 254,000 pending disability appeals that sit four more years awaiting resolution.

Today, more than one million of our veterans are waiting on an answer from VBA, usually going without needed benefits and healthcare.

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Based on our experience assisting veterans with claim appeals, there are four main reasons why VBA remains unable to fix the agency’s claim delay and error crisis, including VBA’s quarter million pending appeals. 

First, VBA subordinates appeals by placing new claims at the front of the line.  However, appealed claims have a recognized legal status.  In 2003, Congress mandated that VBA provide “expeditious treatment” of appealed claims remanded by the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (38 USC § 7112).  “Expedite” means to accelerate the process of, or to speed up.  The law has no teeth, and so VBA ignores it with impunity. 

Second, despite the provision of additional resources by Congress for staff and new computers, VBA remains short-handed.  In May, VBA mandated overtime for new claims, confirming the agency doesn’t have enough claims processors.

Additionally, VBA shifted staff from appeal-processing duty to work on initial.  By stealing from Peter to pay Paul, VBA’s poor planning and ill-conceived staff allocation resulted in a system prone to frequent errors and appeals.

Third, VBA emphasizes speed and production over quality and accuracy.  Under VBA’s bizarre “work credit” scheme that rates VBA employees’ performance, claim processors are judged on how many claims are processed, rather than how many claims are processed accurately.  Perhaps most alarming, there is no “work credit” for VBA employees to process appealed claims. 

Fourth, VBA lacks universal, standardized nationwide training.  In June 2013, VBA reported only 17 percent of claims processors completed mandatory training.  This means that over eight out of ten VBA decision makers are inadequately trained. 

There are practical solutions to VBA’s claim appeal quagmire.  Congress has held dozens of oversight hearings and increased VBA’s funding to hire more claims processors, and mandated the speedy completion of appeals.  In addition, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is continuing its oversight of this issue by hosting an important VBA claim appeals round table later this fall.

However, funding and oversight efforts are not enough.  We believe Congress must demand accountability at all levels of VBA, and we suggest three additional steps to resolve this crisis immediately.

First, Congress should demand that VBA comply with the 2003 law mandating the “expedited” processing of claim appeals; they should not be subordinated in favor of deciding new claims.

Second, Congress and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should set tough compliance standards for both top VBA officials and rank-and-file workers.  Executives leading VBA’s 56 regional offices should be judged, in part, on completing appeals in a timely and “expedited” manner.  For claims processors, VBA should scrap the malicious “work credit” system and replace it with incentives focusing on improving accuracy as well as finishing claim appeals.

Third, Congress should mandate and fund universal training standards for all VBA employees, again, from top to bottom.  In order to end the vicious cycle of delays, VBA should focus on quality and deciding Veterans’ claims accurately the first time.

With these solutions, Congress will have the standards to hold VBA officials and workers accountable for both the timely and accurate processing of all claims, including appeals.

More than 50 veterans die each day waiting on a VBA claim decision or appeal.  No veteran should die waiting four years on a VBA claim appeal because VBA failed to process the claim accurately the first time.

Bergmann and Moore are principals in the law firm Bergmann & Moore, LLC, which was founded in 2004 and is managed by former VA litigators representing veterans and their families throughout the United States on disability claim appeals at all levels of the VA. www.VetLawyers.com

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