The VA has reached a breaking point in terms of its ability to handle the claims of more than 3 million veterans and this plan would be, at best, an initial step aimed at the most time-consuming claims, according to the department. As the Chicago Tribune reported in December, service-related disability payments to Vietnam veterans soared more than 60 percent from 2003 to 2009, reaching $15.4 billion, or 45 percent of the $34 billion the VA paid in veterans' disability claims last year. With other diseases being linked to exposure to Agent Orange, the numbers of veterans and the cost to treat them will continue to increase and the VA will be increasingly hard-pressed to handle the demand.
"Veterans whose health was harmed during their military service are entitled to the best this nation has to offer," said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a disabled Vietnam veteran who is also a retired Army general. "We are undertaking an unprecedented modernization of our claims process to ensure timely and accurate delivery of that commitment."
The department said it plans to advertise for private sector bids to develop an automated system, with implementation scheduled before the end of summer. The system will cover only a portion of the claims the department handles.
Veterans' organizations applauded the move, but with some skepticism. Why not automate the system for all claims, one official asked. And will claims for some diseases be given preference over other, long-delayed claims, another asked.
"This is so far long overdue it isn't even funny," said John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America. Rowan said the concept of streamlining the claims system is a positive development, but it remains to be seen whether the automation system will work as smoothly as intended.
"Shinseki knows damn well the system's no good, and we really appreciate what he is trying to do," Rowan added. "We'll just have to wait to see the details."
The VA said it plans to shorten the average time it takes to consider claims to 90 days or less; with the current bureaucratic logjam claims can take 200 days, not counting appeals. Paul Sullivan, executive director of the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, said that if Shinseki "failed to act...the VA benefit claims processing system may have collapsed."
Sullivan said the "underlying cause" of the problem has been building since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it was the "failure of the Bush administration... to beef up the VA" that forced Shinseki to act. Veterans' claims for post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, have skyrocketed since the Vietnam War, and Sullivan said PTSD claims are just as worthy to be put on the VA's planned fast track as Agent Orange-related illnesses.
The health effect of Agent Orange, which was used in Vietnam to defoliate trees and jungle hiding places for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, is still evolving. While it is not the primary culprit driving up disability costs, the growing number of illnesses linked to exposure to the chemical- cancers, diabetes and other disabling maladies- has helped push the VA beyond its ability to handle claims.
In recent years the VA has added thousands of workers to process the increasing caseload, but that has done little to un-clog the system. Shinseki called the VA's automation plan a "major step forward."
"With the latest, fastest and most reliable technology, VA hopes to migrate the manual processing of these claims to an automated process that meets the needs of today's veterans in a more timely manner," Shinseki said.