U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, today announced that a 10-point action and reform plan to address the VA claims backlog is included in the fiscal year 2014 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs (VA) and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill approved by the Subcommittee today. Senator Mikulski worked closely with MilCon/VA Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) in developing the reform and action plan.
"When our veterans return from war, they shouldn't have to face a quagmire of bureaucracy in getting their claims processed," Chairwoman Mikulski said. "The solution to this problem must come right from the top. That's why as Chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, I convened a meeting with leaders from DOD, VA, Social Security and the IRS. Our Committee insisted on a sense of urgency and a fire in the belly to get the job done. The result is the 10-point action plan to the end the backlog included in this bill. It's progress. But more needs to be done. The Appropriations Committee will keep fighting the red tape across all the agencies responsible for our veterans because our wounded warriors can't wait."
The backlog of veteran's compensation claims for service-related disabilities has soared to record levels over recent years. VA reported 816,839 pending claims as of June 10, 2013, of which 66 percent have been pending for more than 125 days and are considered to be backlogged. Claims are often more complex due to more complex injuries.
The problems are even worse at VA's Baltimore Regional Office. There, the average wait time is 332 days, or 11 months. More than 16,000 claims, or 84 percent, are older than 125 days. The Baltimore Office has the highest error rate of any regional office, with an error rate of 26.2 percent compared to 13.7 percent nationally.
In addition to fully funding the President's budget request for claims processing operations, the bill includes a 10-Point Action Plan to give the VA additional tools to address the backlog and to strengthen training, oversight, and accountability:
- Provides $20 million above the budget request to upgrade computer hardware, such as servers, in VA Regional Offices to handle the advanced program requirements of the Veterans Benefits Management Program (VBMS). VBMS, which is a paperless claims system, is scheduled to be installed in all Regional Offices by the end of June;
- Provides an additional $10 million for targeted overtime and training for claims processors as needed to increase production and help eliminate the claims backlog;
- Directs the VA to increase training of claims processors to achieve not only expedited production but also to ensure quality and accuracy to reduce claims appeals. Additionally, training programs are to be accompanied by regular testing and monitoring of poorly performing Regional Offices to identify and remediate performance problems;
- Directs the VA to provide Quality Review Teams and spot audits at Regional Offices to assess the performance of the claims processing operations and flag any management or operational weaknesses;
- Directs the VA to create Centers of Excellence at selected Regional Offices for certain types of complex claims, such as claims for PTSD or TBI compensation. With the VBMS paperless claims system, these centers could use their expertise to field claims from across the nation;
- Directs the VA to have the data management capability to receive all Department of Defense (DOD) health records in an electronic format by the end of calendar year 2013. DOD is implementing a program to have all service treatment records digitized and sent electronically to VA by the end of 2014. DOD must accelerate this effort to achieve full electronic transmission of records by the end of 2013 and VA must be prepared to accept them;
- Requires the VA to provide monthly reports to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations on performance measures for each Regional Office, including the number of backlogged claims, the average number of days to complete a claim, and error rates;
- Requires the VA to submit quarterly reports that include the number of claims personnel in each Regional Office, corrective action taken to remedy any problems at poorly performing offices, training programs undertaken by Regional Offices, and Quality Review Team audits performed during the quarter;
- Directs the VA Inspector General in coordination with the DOD Inspector General to examine the processes and procedures involved in the transmission of medical and personnel records from DOD to VA to identify any problem areas and provide recommendations for improvements;
- Provides an additional $12.9 million for the Board of Veterans Appeals to hire additional personnel to expedite the processing of appeals. The VA estimates that in 2014, the Board's inventory of appeals will reach 46,860 with an average processing time of 625 days.
This legislative plan follows a roundtable discussion convened by Chairwoman Mikulski and Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) with senior Administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, Social Security Administration Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin, and Internal Revenue Service Deputy Commissioner for Operations Support Beth Tucker, to finally put an end to the claims backlog that has troubled the Department of Veterans Affairs for years. Following that meeting, the participants agreed:
1. Each agency will identify a single high level person whose sole focus is fixing problems, and who reports directly to the Secretary or Administrator.
2. Secretaries Hagel and Shinseki agreed to meet every 60 days as we progress toward ending the claims backlog.
3. A method of accountability to the Chairwoman and to the Committee, including a coordinated progress report to the Committee every 60 days.
As a member of the Senate Military Family Caucus and the Veterans Jobs Caucus, Senator Mikulski has been a strong advocate for our veterans to ensure they receive the care and benefits they have earned and deserve. She has supported increased funding for VA construction projects across the country enabling the creation and expansion of new outpatient clinics.
In February, Senator Mikulski was joined by Secretary Shinseki in touring the VA's Baltimore Regional Office. There, Senator Mikulski and Secretary Shinseki met with claims processing employees and Secretary Shinseki announced his plan to reduce the backlog in Baltimore and across the nation.
The Military Construction, Veterans Affairs (VA) and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill provides funding for the construction of mission critical and quality of life facilities for U.S. military personnel and their families serving around the world, including schools, hospitals, child care centers and family housing. The bill also provides funding for veterans medical care and benefits, and for VA facilities throughout the country. The Related Agencies funded in the bill include Arlington National Cemetery, The American Battle Monuments Commission, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the Armed Forces Retirement Homes.