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The VA's newest effort to close veterans' disability claims backlog

The Veterans Affairs department announced a new effort Friday to clear a backlog of veterans waiting for decisions on their applications for disability benefits to help those veterans who’ve been waiting the longest to get benefits sooner.

Some 244,000 veterans have been waiting more than a year for the VA to process their applications for disability benefits. Under the new policy, the VA will give provisional disability ratings to those people over the next six months.

“What we’re trying to do now is take the claim as it sits and go ahead and get compensation, money, sent to the veteran faster,” said Randy Noller from the Veterans Affairs department.

Veterans will then have a year to make sure the VA has all the records and information that would affect their final disability status.

Last fall, a VA audit found the Phoenix regional office has one of the longest wait times for disability claims in the country. More than 9,000 veterans have been waiting over a year for the office to process their applications. That is about 42 percent of the claims pending at the Phoenix office.

Gen. Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has said that the VA will eliminate the backlog by 2015, and set a new target of clearing all disability claims within 125 days. 

Noller said the backlog comes from increased volume and complexity of today’s disability claims.  Iraq and Afghanistan veterans use VA services in record numbers, and their disability claims are a lot more complicated, and thus take longer to process, he said.

“In the Vietnam era, the average claim contained three to five conditions, that’s illnesses or injuries.” Noller said. “Now the average is 10 to 12, so they’re much more complex claims.”

Noller attributed that increased complexity to better survival rates in Iraq and Afghanistan. More people survive battlefield injuries, so they are able to come home and file claims.

Correy Harris from Phoenix-based Madison Street Veterans Association said the VA has had a poor track record with making changes to fix the problem of long waits for benefits. He said recent changes the VA made, like making the system paperless, to make the process more efficient in the long-term have made claims waits longer in the short-term, and that has made many veterans skeptical.

“I speak with a lot of Vietnam veterans who say the situation over the last 10 years is no different than the last 50 years,” Harris said.

He said that if the system does show good results, veterans who have opted out of applying for benefits could decide to file claims, adding to the volume of claims. 

When the department expanded the number of Agent Orange-related ailments it recognized, he said, the VA had to divert resources to adjust claims of Vietnam-era veterans.

“There was a whole glut of veterans coming in that the VA didn’t anticipate to file those claims because they saw the VA doing something,” Harris said. “People who had waited 50 years to take care of their challenges that they’d incurred from their service in Vietnam came in in droves to file their claims.”

Still, Harris said he is cautiously optimistic that the new policy will help veterans get the benefits they deserve.

“This does seem very immediate,” Harris said. “This could be something great and it could be wonderful for veterans, but I’m not going to hold my breath. I would like to wait and see before I declare victory on dealing with veterans’ claims.”