VA warned not to ignore other programs while fixing claims backlog

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The leaders of a key House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on Thursday warned department officials not to sacrifice other programs while focusing on the agency’s massive claims backlog.

In the wake of the 2007 scandal at Walter Reed Medical Center that found widespread medical mistreatment, the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments initiated the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) to assess wounded, ill or injured troops. The system determines whether they are fit for duty and, if not, what “rating” and benefits they will receive prior to leaving the armed services.

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More than 82,000 military members have completed the process since 2007, according to Nancy Weaver, acting deputy assistant secretary of Defense for warrior care policy.

Yet Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, said that he had the “sense IDES is not a top priority within the VA” and that the “exclusive focus” was on whittling down the claims backlog.

“If this belief exists at the VA, it is not OK,” he said.

The VA’s disability and benefits claims backlog stands at 291,000, according to the agency, down from 611,000 in March 2013. However, the total number of pending claims remains much higher, at more than 572,000.

Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), the panel’s ranking member, expressed concern that IDES and another program dubbed Quick Start, which allows troops to submit a claim for disability compensation up to 59 days before they leave the service, had been “put on the back-burner.”

Linda Halliday, the VA’s assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, said the department had recently looked into both programs and concluded that while the backlog is dropping, the progress came “at the expense” of other efforts and could wind up delaying benefits for veterans.

“That sounds like robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Titus commented.