A new plan to close old cases at the Department of Veterans Affairs is raising worries the change will just make VA look more efficient instead of helping long-suffering veterans with aging disability claims.
The department is under pressure from Congress, veterans groups and others to end its backlog of more than 600,000 unfinished pension and disability benefits claims cases, especially those that have lingered in bureaucratic limbo for years.
|‘These provisional decisions only serve one purpose and that is to cook the VA books and cheat the veteran,Ó he said. ÒThis is smoke and mirror claims- processing. --- Ronald Robinson, Columbia, SC, AFGE local president’|
Under the new plan, VA will issue a "provisional" rating within 60 days on cases two years old or more. Veterans would then have a year to submit new evidence to increase their rating, or ask that the rating be made final so they can file an appeal.
The apparent catch is that issuing the provisional rating may lead to creation of a new case, thus letting VA "close" the old one when in fact the veteran's claim remains outstanding.
Ronald Robinson, president of the AFGE union local that represents VA claims workers in Columbia, S.C., said the new rules are nothing more than an effort to make the agency's sinking statistics look better.
Two critical numbers for VA are the average time a claim has been pending, and the time it takes to issue a rating. Robinson said old cases under the new plan would be considered closed once the provisional rating is issued.
If the veteran submits new evidence, that will be considered a new case, said Robinson, who spent 20 years in the Army and another 17 at VA.
"These provisional decisions only serve one purpose and that is to cook the VA books and cheat the veteran," he said. "This is smoke and mirror claims- processing."
VA officials did not respond to an interview request or a series of written questions seeking clarification on the new initiative.
Almost 900,000 disability and pension claims are awaiting an initial rating decision, which determines whether a veteran is entitled to monthly benefits for service-connected illnesses and injuries and, if so, how much.
About 70 percent of them have been in the system longer than 125 days, the point at which they are considered "backlogged" by the agency.
The Washington Examiner's "Making America's Heroes Wait" investigative series earlier this year detailed VA's repeated failures to reduce the backlog despite massive budget and staff increases since 2009.
VA has not released information on how many veterans have claims that are more than two years old.
Few details of the new plan have been released since its abrupt announcement by VA Friday. That has left veterans advocates hopeful but skeptical that the initiative will do much to help veterans with old cases.
Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said it's too early to know whether VA's fast-track initiative is meant to fix the problem or just fix the agency's numbers.
Implemented properly, it could help veterans get some benefits they are entitled to, he said.
For instance, if a veteran has an aging claim with five medical conditions, and there is sufficient documentation to decide only two of them, the new policy will allow ratings for those two issues. What happens to the other three conditions is still unclear, Tarantino said.
If VA makes it a priority to resolve them quickly, then the new initiative could benefit veterans, he said. If the new system merely closes cases based on the two conditions that are fully documented, then leaves it to the veteran to continue fighting for full recognition of the remaining conditions, the new policy will do little to fix the problem, he said.
"This could just be a math trick where they are reducing the backlog," Tarantino said. "If they just give someone the claim and then send it all the way back to the beginning of the line, then they are playing numbers games.
"If they give someone a provisional rating and then fast track those claims to completion, then that is its proper execution. This in theory could go either way."
Peter Gaytan, executive director of the American Legion, worries the new policy will lead to legitimate claims being rejected or disability ratings being lower than they should be.
Provisional ratings will be based on evidence VA has at the time. The new policy does nothing to determine why a case has been stuck in the system for two years or more, Gaytan said.
If implemented poorly, it could make matters worse by creating a new tier of cases as veterans submit new information to raise their provisional ratings, he said.
VA has not done a good job of explaining its new policy, so it's too early to judge the agency's motives or the plan's chances for success, Gaytan said.
"It's as confusing to us as it is to anyone else," he said.
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.