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The Veterans Affairs Department will help fewer veterans as it aims to prevent errors in reducing its backlog of disability claims by awarding temporary ratings to the oldest claims.
Testifying Tuesday before the Senate Budget Committee, VA officials said the initiative launched Friday — which applies to claims that are more than a year old — will provide “provisional” ratings and immediate disability benefits only to cases that can be quickly and clearly decided.
Asked about the potential for errors, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said only claims that provide “clarity and documentation, where we can render a decision,” will be fast-tracked into the new program.
If the claims are key missing documents, including those verifying military service and diagnosing a disability, the claim will not be processed under the new initiative, VA officials said.
With the limitations, VA officials consider it unlikely than any veteran would start receiving a rate of disability pay that ends up too high, said Allison Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits. “We do not anticipate conditions were we would overpay,” she said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the budget committee chairwoman, said she likes the idea but has questions about accuracy and whether VA can review the estimated 250,000 claims that have been sitting for a year or longer without dedicating additional staff to that job.
“I am pleased the department is taking action and trying a new initiative to make a difference for our veterans,” she said, noting that 70 percent of veterans who have filed claims have waited longer than VA’s own 125-day processing goal.
She is not the only one with concerns. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the budget committee’s ranking Republican, said VA promised last year that it would reduce the number of claims older than 125 days — at the time, 60 percent of the backlog — to 40 percent. Instead, the situation has deteriorated further.
“This is a problem that has not gotten better,” Sessions said. “It has gotten worse.”
Shinseki said VA is working to move more claims more quickly. “We are resolved to eliminate the claims backlog in 2015, when claims will be processed in 125 days or less at a 98 percent accuracy level.”