On July 11, The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced several efforts geared toward the process of completing veterans’ disability claims faster and more accurately.
The Challenge training program is such an effort designed to help VA employees process an additional 150,000 to 200,000 claims annually. All of the initiatives discussed are part of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki’s aggressive goal to eliminate the backlog of 558,000 claims, and have no claim more than 125 days old with a 98 percent accuracy rate by the end of fiscal year 2015.
In a release, Shinseki stated, “Our training and technology skills programs are now delivering the knowledge and expertise our employees need to succeed in a 21st Century workplace.”
In a teleconference call on July 11, Undersecretary Allison A. Hickey, expressed her personal concern for the welfare of veterans and discussed ways the VA is working to expedite the disability claims process.
“Too many veterans have to wait too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” Hickey said. “The VA is aggressively building a strong foundation for a paperless, digital disability claims system.”
In an environment where in the last two fiscal years, the VA has completed 1 million claims per year and is expected to complete another 1 million disability claims in the 2012 fiscal year, the Challenge training initiative appears to be moving in a positive direction.
According to a supporting report issued by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), the training initiative has yielded approximate 150 percent more claims per day with a 30 percent increase in accuracy. To date more than 1,300 employees have completed the eight-week training program which is now mandatory for all newly appointed or re-assigned employees that handle disability claims.
Hickey went on to describe how a new and improved VA organizational model would involve a special handling of claims from veterans facing the most serious of injuries, illnesses, financial hardship or homelessness. The model includes a segmented-lanes approach under three headings called Express (for vets with one or two conditions), Special Operations (for vets with specialty circumstances such as hardship, PTSD, POW’s and military sexual trauma) and Core (for vets with several medical conditions.)
According to Hickey, the segmented lanes approach will help to increase the speed and accuracy of the claims process because specialists will become familiar with processing those claims with similar complexities.
Hickey also noted that one of the more significant successes has been the recent completion of backlogged disability claims from Vietnam veterans seeking disability as a result of Agent Orange.
“We have successfully completed all of our live [Vietnam] veteran claims in this category as of March ,” Hickey said.
Expressing interest in American Indian Veterans
After the teleconference, Hickey fielded several questions from the media including questions from Indian Country Today Media Network regarding issues faced by Native veterans, specifically those veterans in rural areas with limited access to the VA.
“We have had a big focus on how we build this system and all of the initiatives for our rural veterans to make sure we do not build a process that makes it more difficult for them to achieve success and help the process for all veterans’ claims including our Native American and rural veteran claims. We have some initiatives that we are kick starting,” Hickey said.
Acknowledging that 40 percent of claims are already being given clinical care by a veteran health administration doctor, Hickey described the process of Acceptable Clinical Evidence (ACE) – where clinical doctors will fill out a disability benefit questionnaire (DBQ) to submit alongside disability claims to avoid additional travel and time for rural and Native veterans.
“If your cardiologist has told us that you have a degraded heart performance, we won’t have to send you to get an additional cardiology appointment to assess that. In this way we have helped more than 5,000 veterans in a very short period of time to avoid having to drive them to report for an exam. I now have the potential to move a 29-day process to a seven-day process.
“DBQ’s will help because veterans can ask their [Indian Health Service] doctor to fill it out and give it to us. That is a way to bridge this gap and a way for us to partner with the IHS and [Bureau of Indian Affairs] to deliver a great result for that Native American veteran,” she said.
“I’m very interested in knowing how this helps your readership and your community,” said Hickey.