A coworker once commented, after administering a particularly brutal Canasta defeat, “You have to kick a man when he’s down; you can’t take advantage of him when he’s winning.” While such win-at-all-costs thinking may be appropriate among friends during a lunchtime card game, there is no place for such cavalier attitude toward people in real need. Yet, that is exactly what the Obama administration is exhibiting with a proposed change in rules governing how veterans must apply for service connected disability claims.
As noted in a piece by N&F contributor, Kathy, the Obama administration is rightfully embarrassed by the backlog of disability claims totaling over 685,000, many of which have languished, unprocessed, for 125 days or more. The VA plans to reduce that backlog of severely delayed claims from over 59% to only 40% in 2014. One of the planned changes announced will be mandatory overtime for claims processors. Increasing the hours spent working on claims should result in more claims completed each week.
However, it would do nothing to slow the tsunami of new claims filed by our disabled warriors. One solution proposed by the Obama administration’s Department of Veterans Affairs would be to move the burden from those processing the claims onto the shoulders of those seeking disability compensation.
Blaming delays on the veterans.
Under the current system, it is very easy for veterans seeking disability compensation to initiate a claim. All that is necessary is filing an “informal claim” to start the process until the rest of the formal paperwork and documentation is completed and submitted for review. That “informal claim” request can be as simple as a hand written note scribbled on a cocktail napkin stating the veteran has a service connected disability.
According to the VA, this ease of application is what contributes to the claims backlog, as processors spend time determining the nature and validity of each claim. There would be no backlog if only it weren’t so easy to file a claim. The Obama VA’s solution is to require veterans complete a standard form when filing for compensation or appealing a decision.
Burying veterans in paperwork.
There is no doubt on the need to transform how disability claims are managed. The VA, like much of the federal government, still relies heavily on paper records to track a veteran’s history of service, injuries, and illness. It is this cumbersome paper system, more than veterans applying for benefits, which slows an already inefficient process to a dead crawl. Processors must generate written records requests for each claim pending, and then wait, and wait some more, for responding bureaucracies to send the stack of required records.
The rule change states, “VA believes that using a standard form is a minimal burden to place on claimants.” Yet, the proposed rule change would place the burden of collecting and forwarding those records on the applicants, freeing VA workers to determine claim status more quickly. Instead of making the VA transform its business model to become less inefficient, the proposed regulations would simply shift the work load to the veteran.
Benefits delayed are benefits denied.
While using a standard application form might seem reasonable, the implementation as proposed could cost disabled veterans substantial amounts in ‘lost’ accrued benefits. The VA generally pays benefits accrued during the time it takes from initial application to final determination. Usually several months, and sometimes years of back benefits are paid lump sum once the VA has made its decision. The key for calculating any accrued benefits lies with the date of first communication. The “informal claims” locks in that effective date for veterans as they gather supporting evidence, such as military and medical records for inclusion with the formal application.
Under the proposed regulation, veterans who put their claims in writing would have to completely fill out a standard form. The clock that determines how far back the government will pay, won’t begin ticking until the VA receives the successfully completed form. The real ‘gotcha’ being that “successfully completed” part. Even a simple typo or single omission could be cause for the VA to declare the application incomplete, and take months to resolve — all the while, the clock would be stuck on zero.
The VA’s new rule does make one concession for modern technology. Even if the form is incomplete, veterans who fill out an on-line version of the standard form would have up to one year to successfully complete their applications. However, this does little for those veterans who are severely disabled, homeless, suffering from traumatic brain injury, or do not have Internet access.
Time to act is running out.
The VA has not provided a timeline for issuing its final rule, but said it would take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. This rule change must never see the light of day. Write your Representative and Senators stating your opposition to this latest groin kick on our most valued citizens — those who gave all for our liberty.
Dennis P. O’Neil