Surge needed on vets claims, lawmakers say

While such changes as holding federal workers more accountable for errors and shortening deadlines for filing and ruling on appeals might provide some help, Burr said, the end result is likely to be modest, with the Veterans Affairs Department able to finish a few more claims each year than received.

But with an estimated backlog of between 600,000 and 800,000 claims, depending on how it is counted, modest progress isn’t enough, he said.

Burr called for a military-style “surge” strategy to allow VA to quickly reduce the backlog using temporary measures.

Burr, whose remarks came at a Wednesday hearing on the appeals process for veterans claims, said he would work with committee chairman Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, to try to find a solution.

Burr said he knows VA, the appeals board and appeals court are “making efforts to get decisions faster” but they’re not moving fast enough.

“Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the appeals process takes far too long, and it is not acceptable,” he said.

VA’s average processing time on an initial benefits claim is six months, Burr said. If a veteran appeals, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals takes an average of 1,100 days to rule on the case. If a veteran appeals the board’s decision to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, it can take another 14 months for a decision to be issued.

“It is understandable why many veterans, including veterans back in North Carolina, are extremely frustrated by this long appeals process,” Burr said.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, also has talked about a “surge” approach to reducing the backlog of claims.

One of his ideas is to automatically approve claims related to Agent Orange exposure by Vietnam-era veterans, as long as there is no obvious fraud.

Another Filner proposal would automatically grant claims that were prepared with the help of a veterans service officer certified to handle claims.

Kerry Baker of Disabled American Veterans, who testified at the Senate hearing, said the appeals rate on veterans claims is climbing. In 2007, VA made 824,844 claims decisions that generated about 100,000 appeals. For 2009, VA estimates it will make 942,700 claims decisions that will result in 132,000 appeals.

Baker suggested several procedural steps to make the process move a little faster, including reducing the amount of time a veteran has to appeal an initial VA determination. Current law allows up to a year to appeal the decision, but Baker said this could be cut to six months.

He also said VA employees need to be held more accountable for both the speed and accuracy of claims they handle.

A sign of the problem, he said, is that almost 6,000 cases handled by the Board of Appeals for Veterans Claims in 2007 were sent back because of requests for VA medical records.

“The disturbing factor here is that a VA employee can usually obtain VA medical records without ever leaving the confines of one’s computer screen,” Baker said.

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