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Op-ed: Reducing Veteran Disability Claims Backlog, One Step at a Time

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Op-ed: Reducing Veteran Disability Claims Backlog, One Step at a Time

When director of the Illinois Department of Veteran's Affairs Tammy Duckworth returned from Iraq missing both legs, the VA asked her for paperwork to prove the severity of her injuries. The utter lack of common sense in this one case is emblematic of a department that in recent years has too often overlooked the health care and disability needs of our veterans.

Nowhere is this failure more evident than in the backlog of 600,000 disability claims. Last week, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee took an important step toward reducing this backlog once and for all. On Wednesday, the committee passed the Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Modernization Act of 2008. This legislation would require the VA to instantly pay partial claims for severely wounded veterans, remove unnecessary hurdles to proof of service in a combat zone, completely overhaul the prehistoric ratings schedule which has contributed to the size and scope of the backlog, and repair the flawed and broken system of processing claims.

In an editorial board meeting with The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus last year, I advocated erring on the side of the veteran by paying part of their claim up front. I was pleased that a form of this concept was included in our legislation.

Returning service members with an unequivocal service connected injury, like Director Duckworth, currently have to wait for all of their other injuries (including minor ones) to be processed before receiving payment. Our legislation would award partial claims to severely and very severely injured veterans right away for their most critical injuries while the rest of the claim is processed. I believe this is a step in the right direction.

Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are also having a very difficult time proving that they "were engaged in combat with the enemy" a requirement to receive service-connected disability benefits. Our wounded warriors are expected to produce incident reports, buddy statements, medals, or other items that are often difficult to obtain.

Our legislation would expand the definition of "combat with the enemy" to include active service in a combat theater during a period of war. So if a soldier from Moline or Rock Island who served in Baghdad is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the VA would be required to process their claim. This would essentially stop the VA from making veterans search for evidence that is nonexistent, classified or missing from official records and ease the burden of proof on the veteran.

Finally, our legislation would completely overhaul the outdated ratings system which is contributing to an already massive disability claims backlog.

The Veterans Affairs Schedule for Rating Disabilities (VASRD), last comprehensively updated over 60 years ago, does not coincide with current medical practices and guidelines, especially in the area of mental health. As a result, many veterans suffering from PTSD or other psychological conditions are not being properly rated based upon the most appropriate and current standards. Our legislation requires the VA to readjust the VASRD using current medical and technological concepts, practices, and standards in no less than 3 years. We also require additional training for claims adjudicators and improvements to the work credit system where currently VA staff is rewarded for the quantity of claims they process instead of the quality of their work. These employees are trapped in a failed system and our legislation will help rescue them.

I have long said that the disability claims backlog is a moral black eye on our nation. No veteran that served in harms way should ever have to stand in line to receive the care they deserve. This problem is complex and it cannot be fixed overnight. It takes a forward looking plan that demands reform at every corner of the VA and begins giving our wounded warriors the benefit of the doubt again. The Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Modernization Act of 2008 is not perfect, but I believe it is a good start. I, for one, will not rest until the backlog is reduced to zero.


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