By Regina Dennis
McLennan County veterans services officer Steve Hernandez will address a congressional Veterans Affairs subcommittee Friday to make the case for increasing resources for claims processing in Waco.
Hernandez was invited by U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, to speak at the House VA subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs on solutions for improving the benefits claims process.
The full House Veterans Affairs Committee also is holding a hearing with VA officials to address a number of issues, including overall budget, personnel, health care services and claims.
Hernandez said he plans to urge more action by the VA to streamline the claims process and speed up the time to get a benefits award or denial.
"During this process, however long it takes, the veteran is still confronted with real-life issues that could lead to homelessness, could lead to a strained relationship, depression or mental health (issues) and, a real concern to me, suicide," Hernandez said. "We all know (the backlog) can't be positive."
Adding more claims processors would greatly reduce the times to review and rate claims, Hernandez said.
The Waco VA Regional Office stands last in the country in processing benefits claims. It takes the office 403 days on average to rate a claim, an increase from 378.8 days reported last month on the VA's performance-tracking website ASPIRE.
The Houston VA regional office takes 301.9 days on average to process a claim, an increase from 274.4 in August. The national average is 256.8 days.
VA officials have said the longer processing times stem from a surge of 248,000 class-action claims for Vietnam-era veterans battling problems related to Agent Orange.
The Waco regional office inherited about 19,000 of those claims.
Hernandez said the VA also has added more roadblocks that slow down the claims process.
For example, the agency requires doctors to send medical paperwork substantiating a veteran's disability claim directly to a claims processor, instead of allowing veterans to bring in the paperwork.
That sometimes can create long delays in obtaining the documents if a veteran is seeing multiple physicians or if the doctor's office does not immediately send files to the VA.
Friday's hearing also will explore the merits of an initiative the state of Texas employed to tackle the claims problems.
Last month, the Texas Veterans Commission created the Strike Force Team and hired 34 claims processors to tackle the backlog of claims at the Waco and Houston regional VA offices.
The yearlong initiative is being funded by $1.5 million in emergency funds approved by Gov. Rick Perry.
The veterans commission implemented a similar measure in 2009 called the Claims Processing Assistance Team.
Hernandez said even though it is the VA's responsibility to improve the claims process, the state's initiatives have been effective in clearing backlogs.
Flores said some other states are interested in following the veterans commission's efforts, but few have the extra dollars to enact such a program.
"I think I have mixed feelings about (that program)," Flores said. "Number one, I'm proud of the state for stepping up to do it, but number two, I'm disappointed that the federal government is not processing claims as well as it should.
"It's a shame that the state has to step up and do this because of the federal government's failure to address this issue."
But Flores said he also is hesitant to grant the VA more staff to tackle claims backlogs.
He said the Veterans Affairs Committee has been supportive of the agency's requests in the past to add more claims positions.
Instead, he is interested in learning whether the VA needs to overhaul some systems or processes and revamp how claims are evaluated.
"If the two Texas offices have the worst claims processing records, it seems to me you ought to put your resources where they will do the most good in the quickest amount of time," Flores said.