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VA needs better strategy to handle disability backlog, report says

Lauren Kirkwood, McClatchy Washington Bureau • Dec 17, 2015 at 5:55 PM

WASHINGTON (MCT) – Despite a significant decrease in the backlog of veteran disability claims last year, a report released by an advocacy group says that without a better strategy, the Department of Veterans Affairs may struggle to keep up with future claims.

The report from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, released Monday, warned that even as recent initiatives helped the VA cut its backlog by 37 percent from March to December 2013, the department's claims process lacks both the accountability and the transparency necessary for the coming decades.

"We still have a new generation of veterans coming home now, so we don't want to see this issue fade away, regardless of whether we reach backlog zero," said Jacqueline Maffucci, the group's research director and author of the report. "There is still plenty of work to be done after the VA reaches that goal."

The VA has a goal of eliminating the backlog of disability claims pending for more than 125 days by 2015; the backlog has hovered at about 400,000 since November.

However, the deadline to end the backlog has resulted in pressure on disability claims processing, where the emphasis is more on the quantity of claims processed rather than on their accuracy, the report said.

Mistakes in the claims process also lead to an increase in appeals, which take an average of four years to reach a final decision, according to the report. In December 2013, more than 265,000 appeals were awaiting a decision.

To ensure the majority of claims are processed both quickly and correctly, the report recommended the standardization of VA claims forms to speed up processing, as well as the creation of an electronic health record system that can be operated by both the VA and the Department of Defense.

In a statement, the VA said it was working hard on addressing the issues raised in the report. The VA said it was "executing an aggressive plan to fix this decades-old problem and end the backlog in 2015." It said many of the recommendations in the report are already being addressed.

The report cited a lack of transparency and internal evaluation as the main problems with the disability claims process. While a number of new initiatives were launched last year with the goal of decreasing the backlog, the VA has not established a way to track which initiatives are most successful and project what will be needed in the future, according to officials of the advocacy group.

"There is this huge hole, in terms of transparency and data, within the VA," said Tom Tarantino, the group's chief policy officer.

Chris Young, a 27-year-old Marine Corps veteran who attended the news conference releasing the report, said he has been waiting four months for his medical records to be retrieved so his disability claim could be processed.

"With the claims, there's just not a lot of information out there," Young said. "Most veterans don't really know what to do or who to trust."

And with a growing population of veterans returning with complex injuries, a system that allows the VA to adapt to veterans' needs will become even more important, the report said.

"Then, not only is the backlog zero, but the word 'backlog' is not even part of your lexicon," Tarantino said.

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