Senator Chuck Grassley today asked for additional information about an initiative started in 2004 to ensure that claims are decided right the first time. Grassley's questions follow a response from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to an inquiry he made about the fact that Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) decisions to deny veterans benefit claims were being overturned or remanded at a rate of 50 to 70 percent by appeals courts. The number was brought to light during a Supreme Court case heard last session.
"For a program that started six years ago, you'd expect by now to see some tangible and positive results. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that this has happened. I want to know more about this program, because if it's not working, we should be looking at other solutions to make sure that veterans receive the benefits they are entitled to," Grassley said. "The VA needs to be held accountable and to fix what's wrong. It's clear the substantial increases in VA funding that Congress has provided aren't doing the trick. Without real reform inside the VA, veterans won't get what they deserve and the funds won't accomplish the good they should be doing."
After learning of the high rate of VA claims decisions being overturned on appeal, Grassley said that the fact that VA decisions are overturned with this kind of frequency, meaning they were wrongly decided in the first place, is an indication of serious, systemic problems with the way the VA considers the benefits claims made by veterans.
The poor decisions made by the VA mean more red tape and bureaucratic hassles for veterans. They have to wait longer and go through court proceedings in order to access the benefits they're entitled to. Plus, the VA is wasting time and money that should be going to processing claims because it's instead dealing with appeals of its own bad decisions--making the claims backlog worse than it has to be.
Also, when a claim goes to appeal and the court finds the government's position to be unjustified, attorneys for the plaintiff are eligible to have their fees paid by the government under the Equal Access to Justice Act. So both veterans and taxpayers are being needlessly harmed by what certainly looks like a systemic VA problem.
Here's a copy of the text of Grassley's letter. Grassley's original letter and the response from the VA and can be found on his website.
May 26, 2010
The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki Secretary of Veterans Affairs 810 Vermont Avenue NW Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki,
Thank you for your recent response to my letter of March 16. I appreciate the detailed explanation of the veterans' claims appeals process.
I don't wish to quibble with the rationales presented for why such a large percentage of VA claims are overturned or remanded on appeal, and I am glad that you acknowledge that the VA, " can, and must, continue to improve the quality of VA decisions in order to reduce appeals and remands." However, I would note that there has been a spike in the rate of remanded and reversed cases in the last two years--69% reversed or remanded in 2008 and 57% reversed or remanded in 2009, compared to 45% in 2007. This is despite the initiative you cited as having been initiated in 2004 to reduce "avoidable remands."
I am interested in learning more about this initiative and the VA's efforts generally to ensure that claims are decided right the first time. I know the VA is under great pressure to reduce the unacceptable backlog of veterans waiting to have their claims decided, but if the quality of claims decisions were to slip in the name of quantity, the backlog would only be exacerbated as claims are appealed or resubmitted. To that end, I would also like to learn more about the VA's efforts to modernize its cumbersome, paper-based claims system. Modern technology offers the potential not only to improve the efficiency of the current system, but to enhance accuracy and make the process more user friendly for veterans.
I ask that you have the appropriate personnel brief me or my staff on these issues so that I can better understand where the VA is in the process of fixing the claims system in the long term and how I can best be of assistance as a U.S. Senator. Please have your staff contact James Rice of my Washington, D.C. staff to make arrangements.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Charles E. Grassley United States Senator