This should have been done a long time ago because almost 70 percent of the 850,000 claims pending in the VA are more than 125 days old. Some veterans have been waiting for decisions on benefits for years with an unconscionable 642 days in New York, 619 days in Los Angeles and 542 days in Chicago.
Now finally, after veterans and some elected officials have put the spotlight on this problem, the VA got the message that the long delays are flat-out not acceptable in this country, regardless of plans to eliminate the backlog by 2015. Now VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki says too many veterans are waiting too long for a decision. The new policy, he said, “is the right thing to do now for veterans who have waited the longest.” Amen.
VA claims processors will make provisional decisions on the oldest claims, and a full year is now allowed for veterans to submit additional evidence before a final decision is made. If a VA medical exam is necessary for the claim, it also will be ordered and fast-tracked. Benefits will be retroactive to the date a claim was filed. That’s another sensible policy that should have been in effect long ago.
But there’s more that should be done, says U.S. Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ranger). In a proposed op-ed, he called on VA Secretary Shinseki to cut the claims processing time to 30 days and bring in high-tech companies to help upgrade VA technology.
Graves got it right when he said it’s time “to think outside the box when it comes to fixing the VA.” The agency is “under a crush of paper files — literally,” he said. “An inspector general report on the Winston-Salem VA office found that 37,000 claims folders were stacked on top of file cabinets.” The report said, “The excess weight of the stored files has the potential to compromise the structural integrity of the sixth floor of the facility.”
And the Georgia congressman said a report by the VA inspector general two months ago found the agency’s shift to paperless processing “has made little progress.” Graves said, “Why don’t we ask tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook to help?” He went on to say, “It makes sense to ask some of the most innovative companies of our time to either collaborate or bid for a contract to create a paperless claims system of ease and efficiency.”
That makes sense. Certainly, the VA should take whatever steps are reasonable to get its digital system working at full speed long before the 2015 deadline set by the VA secretary. As Rep. Graves says, “We must aim higher for our heroes.” Amen, again.