A 10-point plan to improve veterans claims processing was approved Tuesday by a Senate subcommittee.
“The claims backlog has grown to crisis proportions, and I am committed to working with the VA to eliminate the backlog, sooner rather than later,” said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding veterans’ programs.
Despite his statement, the claims backlog appears to be dropping. The Veterans Affairs Department reported Monday there were 10,000 fewer claims pending this week that have been waiting 125 days or longer to be processed — although that still leaves more than 840,000 total pending claims.
A $147.9 billion VA budget, including the claims plan, passed the panel Tuesday by voice vote, with the only opposition coming from two Republicans, Dan Coats of Indiana and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, because the budget exceeds federal spending limits for fiscal 2014 set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The House and Senate have been ignoring the budget caps, betting an agreement will be reached to reset them.
The veterans’ budget is slightly less than requested by the Obama administration, but the panel says in a statement that money budgeted for 2013 employee pay raises, but never spent because of a governmentwide pay freeze, was shifted to make up the difference.
Johnson’s 10-point claims processing plan on the veterans’ funding bill includes three provisions that involve spending more money:
* The subcommittee added $20 million to upgrade computer servers and other hardware for the paperless claims system scheduled to be installed in at VA regional offices by the end of June
* To cover overtime and training costs, the panel provides an extra $10 million, a move aimed at increasing production.
* The Board of Veterans Appeals receives an additional $12.9 million to hire additional personnel to expedite claims.
The seven other parts of the plan have no direct costs, but address possible ones.
* VA is ordered to be able to receive Defense Department health documents electronically by the end of the year.
* Monthly reports to Congress are required from each regional office, showing data such as the average days to complete a claim and error rates.
* Quarterly reports from VA must show what corrective action, if any, is taken against regional offices that perform poorly on claims processing.
* In addition to efforts to speed claims process, the subcommittee orders VA to provide training on increasing quality and accuracy, which the panel hopes will reduce appeals.
* Spot audits at regional offices are required to assess performance in claims processing.
* So-called “centers of excellence” would be created at some regional officials to specialize in certain types of claims, such as post-traumatic stress.
* The Defense Department and VA inspectors general must do a joint study of the procedure for transmitting medical and personnel records to identify problems and recommend fixes.
Johnson’s committee is not the only one working on the issue.
The 2014 defense authorization bill passed Friday by the House of Representatives contains a provision sponsored by senior House leaders that requests deployment of a joint military-veterans health records system by Oct. 1, 2016, a move that could shave as many as 145 days off what is now an average of 364 days to complete a claim. This is nonbinding language, but the provision also orders the creation of a joint commission to study the difficulty VA and Defense Department have had sharing medical records and to recommend a solution.
“This amendment will break the current status quo and force DoD to work with VA to develop a truly joint electronic health record integrated across all DoD and VA components by no later than October of 2016,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, one of the House leaders who worked on the amendment to the House defense policy bill.