Veterans Affairs officials announced they will resume in-person compensation and pension exams at 20 department medical centers in coming weeks in an effort to bring down a backlog of benefits cases which has grown substantially since November due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The exams backlog currently sits at 114,000 cases, up from 65,000 in November 2019.
The news came just a day after lawmakers and veterans advocates expressed concern that department leadership hasn’t done enough to inform veterans about their plans to handle benefits cases stalled in recent months, as in-person exams were banned in almost all cases.
The 20 sites are the same ones that earlier this month began offering non-emergency services to patients as part of the department implementing their first phase of re-opening hospitals.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie described the department response so far to the virus as a great success.
In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the move is an important step forward for the department following weeks of restrictions due to the fast-spreading coronavirus, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans, including 1,200 VA patients.
“We’re keeping the safety of veterans and our medical providers as our highest priority and have put a robust set of measures in place to ensure medical providers can safely conduct these examinations,” he said.
Compensation and pension exams are often required after veterans file disability claims to verify their medical conditions and help evaluators set individuals’ disability rating.
In early April, in response to concerns about coronavirus, VA officials halted the exams along with numerous other face-to-face non-emergency appointments. Department leaders promised veterans benefits claims would not be penalized by the delays, and cases needing the medical reviews would be handled at a later date.
But this week, members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee questioned why more information hadn’t been released about how and when those exams would return.
Twenty medical centers will serve as lead sites for broader efforts to reopen the entire VA system.
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va. and head of the committee’s Disability Assistance & Memorial Affairs panel, said outside advocates have reported cases of veterans receiving letters about appointments that have already been cancelled and missing paperwork which cannot be completed without VA reopening facilities.
“It’s clear there is going to be a lot of catching up,” she said in an interview with Military Times on Thursday. “There was a substantial backlog even before all of this, and the department said they added 25,000 more cases in April alone.”
During a separate congressional appearance on Thursday, VA Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence said the delay in exams “sets us back, because we can’t process all the claims.”
Lawrence asked lawmakers to approve new regulations allowing doctors to conduct online appointments across state lines and allowing nurse practitioners to conduct some of the exams, in an effort to reduce that number.
Luria said she worries officials may rush through too many exams in an effort to clear the backlog, resulting in more benefits appeals and veteran frustration in coming months.
The legislation would tie the 2021 Social Security COLA to veterans benefits increases.
VA officials said veterans outside of the coverage area of the 20 sites “will continue to be served through telehealth appointments or the acceptable clinical evidence process, which includes a review of existing medical records to provide information needed to complete the claim, whenever possible.”
And officials said exceptions will be made for veterans “who do not yet feel comfortable receiving in-person exams.” Veterans will not be penalized for that choice, but may see their cases stalled for longer as staff looks for alternatives to the face-to-face meetings.
Department leaders said they plan to expand the list of locations for the exams “as conditions allow, with guidance from various agencies driving decision making.”
Currently, 121 different VA facilities are still dealing with at least one active coronavirus case. That includes 18 of the 20 sites not being re-opened for the compensation and pension exams.