A Texas lawmaker says he is astounded that the Veterans Affairs Department is balking at a consumer-friendly proposal to tell veterans how long they must wait for a decision when they file benefits claims.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat and a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is cosponsoring the Faster Filing Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in the House and Senate that would require VA to track the average turnaround time for claims and tell veterans what they can expect.
The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of Americaare endorsing the legislation.
“I am frustrated,” said O’Rourke, who noted that in talking with veterans, he has heard that many “had no idea what they were in for when they filed their claim in terms of wait time.”
Among other things, the bill would require VA to explain to veterans the difference between the fastest option — when veterans collect all of the evidence needed for a decision themselves — and the slower option, when VA retrieves the evidence.
Veterans also would be notified of the difference in the time it takes VA to approve claims filed with outside help, such as from a veterans’ service officer, and without such assistance. Veterans would receive this notice in writing and would return a signed acknowledgment to VA, under the bill.
VA opposes the bill, but the agency did not express that view until after the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed the legislation as part of an omnibus veterans’ benefits bill, now pending on the House floor.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a Sept. 9 letter to lawmakers that the bill “would create a significant administrative burden ... effectively delaying the processing of claims.”
Additionally, Shinseki said notices would “mislead or confuse” veterans, and might even steer them to make a decision not in their best interest, such as seeking outside help to file a claim when that may not be necessary in their cases.
O’Rourke said the only administrative burden would be the requirement for a veteran to verify that they received the notice — and added that he would be willing to reconsider that particular provision of his bill.
“All we are asking is for VA to say if you file in this manner, your expected wait time is ‘X,’ and if you file in a different manner, it is half-‘X’ or a third-‘X’ or whatever,” O’Rourke said, referring to VA’s contention that a veteran filing a so-called “fully developed claim” with the assistance of a veterans service offer can expect to have their claim processed in about 123 days, half the time of a traditional claim.
An approved fully developed claim also provides one year of retroactive disability benefits — an incentive for a veteran to look for his own records.
Veterans would be “the primary beneficiary” of this information, O’Rourke said. But that also could help VA if more people file paperless and fully documented claims.
With 744,000 pending claims, the VA reported Sept. 16 that compensation claims are taking an average of 198 days to process. That includes only the period from when a claim is first submitted to notification of a decision; it does not include the years that could be added if a veteran appeals the initial decision.
VA’s weekly report shows the length of time claims are pending and accuracy rates by regional office, and the differences are significant.
For example, VA audits show a 91 percent accuracy rate on claims for the previous three months. But at the Baltimore regional office, the accuracy rate of 80 percent is the lowest in the nation. The Fargo, N.D., office was tops, judged to be 100 percent accurate.
The longest processing time in the Sept. 16 report is 277.2 days, also recorded by the Baltimore regional office. The fastest regional office is in Sioux Falls, S.D., with an average time of 94.1 days.
Average processing time is influenced by many factors, including type of disability, number of medical issues included in a single claim, difficulty in locating documentation, and the function of the regional office.
Someone filing a single claim with multiple disabilities not easily proven to be service-connected could wait far longer than average, even if the claim was sent to VA’s most efficient staff.
The publicly available VA data does not show the difference between processing times for traditional claims and fully developed claims, and many veterans do not even know the different types of processes exist.
“The onus should not be on the veteran to discover the information,” O’Rourke said.