IG: Disability claims caught between DOD, VA

The Veterans Affairs Department needs stronger controls over its claims processing to meet its 30-day goal to provide transition assistance for seriously disabled veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, VA’s inspector general said in a recent report. Also, the department should improve its outreach to make sure it informs all service members and veterans about available benefits to ease their transition to civilian life, the report adds.

The benefits claims of seriously disabled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are caught between the processes of VA and the Defense Department as the departments try to cooperate more to make their procedures seamless, but VA must exert more oversight to accelerate the process, according to the findings of the report released July 17.

“Claims processing delays can cause veterans financial hardship by depriving them of compensation they may need to successfully transition from military service to civilian life,” said Belinda Finn, VA’s assistant inspector general for auditing.

The 30-day goal, expanded outreach and case management for veterans’ claims were among recommendations in 2007 of the presidential Task Force on Returning Global War on Terror Heroes and the Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors.

The IG’s office evaluated a sample of claims dated from fiscal 2006 until mid-fiscal (January) 2008. VA regional offices processed only 24 percent of 4,969 sampled compensation claims of seriously disabled veterans in 30 days, the report states. Of the remaining claims that took longer than one month, 55 percent took up to six months and 21 percent took up to one year to process.

To improve timeliness, the Veterans Benefits Administration should press more strongly for the Defense Department to provide data to identify seriously disabled veterans and monitoring case-managed claims, the report states.

Although DOD had agreed to regularly provide VA with service member data, including injury and illness classification codes, VA said it had not as of January received any of the Army Surgeon General reports. DOD said VA was waiting for the codes until it could receive them through a planned online Veterans Tracking Application, according to the report.

Also, case management procedures require that VA's regional offices communicate with veterans to notify them of the status of their claims and monitor claims’ progress through the system to assure that they met the 30-day goal. The IG found that case management had minimal effect on the timeliness of processing times. The process-monitoring tool that VA field offices used did not clearly show and summarize timeliness information, the IG said.

VA has made improvements since the IG’s audit, said Patrick Dunne, the department's acting undersecretary for benefits. VA has implemented the Veterans Tracking Application with all regional offices able since April to enter data on seriously injured service members. He also said that improvements to the Veterans Service Network, or VetsNet, operations reporting let regional offices better track claims of seriously disabled veterans.

At the end of fiscal 2007, it took an average 111.2 days to process an original claim from a seriously injured veteran; during the month of June 2008, VA reduced the average to 46.6 days to complete such claims, Dunne said.

“While VBA continues to strive for an average of 30 days to complete these claims, processing every claim in 30 days would be extremely difficult due to evidentiary requirements, as well as the notice requirements of the Veterans Claims Assistance Act,” he said.

VA has pursued an agreement with DOD to require separating and retiring service members to attend a briefing on transition assistance, Dunne said. DOD needs to do more to increase participation in the transition assistance program. Currently, only the Marine Corps man ates such attendance, he said.

By the end of December, VA also plans to make sure that outreach communications for transition assistance is generated for National Guard and reserve veterans and to work with DOD to convert the use of separation data in the VA/DOD Identity Repository to also issue outreach packages, Dunne said.

The IG’s Finn said that the Government Accountability Office will prepare a report for an audit of DOD’s Benefits Delivery at Discharge Program. In support of VA activities, she said she expects that GAO will include a recommendation that DOD establish a measure of service members’ participation in the Transition Assistance Program, including VA benefits briefings.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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