Despite concerns from lawmakers, Veterans Affairs officials are moving ahead with plans to outsource nearly all compensation and pension exams in coming months, a move they believe will improve service for veterans.
“This is just the evolution of the process,” said Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence in an interview with Military Times last week. “Right now, contractors are already doing the bulk of them. We think the value of having contractors available to do them is flexibility and the ability to surge.”
The compensation and pension exams are a key part of the process for veterans to receive disability benefits. In most cases before payouts begin, VA requires some type of review by a medical expert to confirm a veteran’s injuries and the severity of its impact.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, about 25 percent of those exams were conducted at VA medical centers or health clinics. When many of those were partially shuttered due to virus prevention efforts, the backlog of C&P exams swelled to more than 350,000.
The department's backlog of disability benefits cases has risen by about 200,000 in recent months.
Lawrence said as of the start of November, the Veterans Benefits Administration has erased most of that backlog and now sits at pre-pandemic service levels. Only about 15 percent of the exams are handled by VA health staff now, with the rest outsourced to private-sector contractors.
He sees that remaining the norm as the department moves forward.
“The Veterans Health Administration is still dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, so the question is what is the best use of those doctors in terms of helping veterans?” he said. “That’s the kind of balancing act we’re looking at.”
But in a letter to VA leadership last month, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va. and head of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee’s panel on disability compensation, said she worried the shift of the exams outside of the VA health system could lead to decreased oversight of the process.
“I need your commitment that VA will ensure all contractors provide timely, high-quality C&P examinations to our disabled veterans,” Luria wrote. “For many veterans, thorough and accurate C&P examinations are crucial to securing service-connected benefits.”
Telephone town halls, some employee remote work will likely continue even when the virus restrictions lift.
VA officials were asked to respond to Luria’s letter by today. Lawrence said last week he does not share the same concerns as the lawmaker.
“I know there are some reasons why VHA will continue to do these exams in some cases, such as veterans already being in their care,” he said. “But I just don’t see any data on the changes that leads me to those same worries. Contractors have been good about increasing capacity and providing flexibility.”
Lawrence he expects several other department changes forced by coronavirus concerns in recent months — such as remote town halls for benefits questions and increased remote services — to continue even after the pandemic ends.