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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Senate Amendment Aims to Decrease Veterans Disability Claims Backlog

From Rick Maze via Navy Times:

The Senate moved Thursday to add $50 million to the fiscal 2009 Department of Veterans Affairs budget specifically to speed the processing of disability claims. By voice vote and with no opposition, the Senate revised the 2009 federal budget to include an amendment sponsored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., adding the money for VA claims processing.

The Senate’s budget resolution, S. Con. Res. 70, which lays out guidelines for federal spending for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, already included a $3.2 billion increase in veterans’ funding over the Bush administration request.

In total, the budget resolution would give the VA $93.6 billion in budget authority for 2009, $5.2 billion more than this year’s VA budget. Lincoln, who sponsored similar legislation last year, said the money is needed “to help veterans receive the benefits they have earned. Veterans are not getting the benefits they need and are not getting them in a timely way.”

The $50 million increase would apply to the general administration account for the Veterans Benefits Administration, which processes benefits claims. The money is earmarked for pilot programs to find ways to cut the average waiting time for a ruling on a claim, currently six months for initial claims. Lincoln thinks working the problem from that direction could have a bigger long-term effect than continuing to hire more people to try to whittle down the huge backlog of claims.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Meanwhile, the search for a new VA Benefits Chief has begun:

A 10-member commission was appointed [last] Thursday to screen candidates to become the next undersecretary of veterans affairs for benefits. Retired Navy Vice Adm. Daniel Cooper, the Veterans Affairs Department’s current benefits chief, has announced he will step down April 1. ...

There is no firm timetable for the commission to complete its work, and a successor to Cooper is unlikely to be named by April 1, according to a senior VA official who asked not to be identified. “This is not the kind of position where you should rush into naming a replacement,” the official said. ...

The benefits chief runs an arm of VA that has about 15,000 employees and pays out $45 billion a year in disability and survivor payments and education benefits, and also oversees VA’s insurance and home loan programs.

Cooper held the job for six years, the longest tenure in that position in VA history. He inherited a large backlog of pending benefits claims that he battled to reduce through a variety of changes, including hiring more people and assigning so-called “tiger teams” of benefits experts to tackle more complex claims so that less experienced people could process the simpler claims.

Despite his efforts, the claims backlog is larger today than at any time in VA history, with about 600,000 pending at any one time. Average processing time for an initial claim is about 180 days. Congress has been pressing for improvements. In a Feb. 28 report on the White House’s proposed VA budget for 2009, Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said the current claims backlog stands at 663,000, about 37,000 more than a year ago.

“We believe the VA must vigorously explore alternative methods of addressing, once and for all this, intolerable backlog,” the report said. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. James Peake said finding the right person for the top benefits job is important.

“With a new generation of combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the search commission must ensure we fill the undersecretary’s job with a person having the right skills, experience, vision and commitment to our nation’s veterans,” Peake said in a statement.

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