Vets battle claims delays
As Rowan County commissioners and local veterans debate possible changes in the local Veteran Services Office, it bears keeping in mind that the VA claims process isn’t simply an issue of local concern. It’s a state and national problem that reached scandalous proportions before only recently getting the attention it deserved.
As recently as March, the VA’s Winston-Salem Regional Office — which handles the bulk of claims from N.C. veterans — had a backlog of 7,000 cases involving veterans who had been waiting more than a year to settle claims. Another 700 had waited longer than two years. Although the VA’s own goal is to process claims within 125 days — or about four months — the average processing time was 353 days. That meant that even under the best-case scenario, an applicant could easily have to wait a year for a decision on a benefits claim.
But things do appear to be improving, according to the VA and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who has been among those pushing the VA to address the lengthy delays too many veterans must endure when filing for benefits, seeking adjustments in benefits they already receive or appealing VA decisions. Earlier this week, Hagan said that the VA has eliminated the backlog of 2-year-old claims at the Winston-Salem Office. The number of veterans waiting more than a year for a decision on benefits has been cut in half.
The less encouraging news, however, is that the backlog of appeals from veterans contesting benefit decisions continues to grow. There currently are nearly 11,000 appeals of disability claims pending in the Winston-Salem office, some of them 4 years old.
Improvements have come in part through more “boots on the ground,” you might say — increased staffing levels at the office. The problems isn’t limited to Winston-Salem or North Carolina, however. To improve overall efficiency, the VA has also been shifting cases between overwhelmed offices and those with lower caseloads. But a continuing bottleneck, Hagan says, involves transfer of medical records from the Department of Defense to the VA. Their computer systems aren’t compatible, which means records can’t be transferred electronically. That’s supposed to be remedied in a couple of years — a timetable that should be speeded up, given the daily increase in claims related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rowan officials say their goal is to make the system more responsive and cost effective, if possible. Those are good goals, obviously. But until the VA reduces its regional office claims backlog and improves its data-sharing capabilities and efficiency, you have to wonder how much difference changes at the local level would make.