Even as coronavirus cases surge around the country, Veterans Affairs officials are dramatically stepping up their efforts to resume Compensation and Pension exams to reduce the backlog of about 200,000 disability claims.
The situation leaves many veterans unsure of the health risks with a difficult choice: Head outside their homes for face-to-face medical appointments despite the virus spikes or delay those exams — and any disability payouts — for even more months.
David McLenachen, executive director of VA’s Medical Disability Examinations Program Office, said for now most veterans have been comfortable with heading back to the doctor’s office.
“We’re finding the number of veterans that remain concerned and don’t want to come in for an in-person exam is pretty small,” he said in an interview with Military Times this week. “The vendors scheduling these exams go into detail about all the precautions that are in place to minimize the risk.
“But as conditions change, we may have more veterans that get concerned and choose not to come in.”
More than 1,600 VA patients have died from the fast-spreading illness since the start of March.
For the last five weeks, VA benefits officials have been steadily ramping up the number of Compensation and Pension exams — used to verify veterans health status for a range of disability claims — at sites across the country.
Those medical visits were postponed and cancelled as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country this spring. Officials replaced some of the appointments with telehealth options and paperwork alternatives, but McLenachen said that still left nearly 60 percent of the regular exam inventory unfinished.
As a result, the backlog of exams has swelled to about 200,000 since March, on top of the regular workload of about 110,000 exams conducted each month.
Officials announced earlier this year that veterans unable to get the exams will be able to get disability benefits back-dated to when they filed their claims, to ensure they won’t face financial penalties for the pandemic precautions. But those cases can’t be finalized and payouts can’t start until the exams and claims checks are completed.
Appointments — most of which have been outsourced to private-sector medical facilities, overseen by third-party vendors — resumed in just a handful of counties in mid-May.
Today, officials have reopened more than 75 percent of the country for the exams, even in areas like Texas, Arizona and Florida which have seen large daily increases in the number of coronavirus cases.
McLenachen said exam schedulers are following local rules regarding safety, and are requiring personal protective equipment for patients and physicians at all resumed exams. Any visits requiring invasive procedures are still being postponed for now.
Family members are barred from accompanying veterans to the exams, unless they are essential caregivers. And under the current procedures, vendors will call veterans who are eligible to schedule exam times and locations, to ensure they understand all the potential restrictions. Veterans need not call to reschedule any exams.
Officials say that troops are staying safe, and the rise in cases has to do with more testing and more community transmission.
McLenachen said the decision to resume the appointments is essential to return the department to normal operations.
“We think we are taking sufficient protective measures for them to feel safe, come in and complete their claims,” he said. “But if they have concerns and want to delay, there is no impact on them, other than delaying (completion) of their claims.”
Nationwide, more than 2.6 million Americans have contracted coronavirus and more than 127,000 have died from complications related to the illness.