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VA rejects proposed fixes for case backlog
By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Apr 17, 2007 20:40:21 EDT
No, no, no and no was the response Tuesday from the Department of Veterans Affairs to four bills pending before Congress to reduce the 600,000-case backlog of veterans’ benefits claims.
That means “no” to HR 67, sponsored by Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., that would allocate $25 million a year — about $1 for each living veteran — to improve veterans’ outreach programs, and would give grants to states to pay for education and training programs for state and local veterans’ agencies.
This also means “no” to HR 1435, sponsored by Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., that orders a three-year, five-state test in which benefits claims that are not complete would be referred to a county or municipal office for help developing the claim
And it means double “no” to two unusual bills that would radically change the veterans’ claims process.
One, HR 1444, would provide a $500 monthly stipend to any veteran who appeals a benefits decision and it takes more than 180 days for a final decision. Sponsored by Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., the proposal would allow a veteran whose claim is denied to keep the accumulated payments. A veteran whose claim is approved for a benefit of more than $500 a month would receive the difference, said Hall, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs disability assistance and memorial affairs subcommittee where the four bills are pending.
The second unusual bill is HR 1490, sponsored by Reps. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Fred Upton, R-Mich., which would automatically grant disability benefits claims filed by combat veterans as long as they met minimal requirements, with payments set at the median level for the disability.
“The current system is more than broken, it is shameful,” Upton said. On average, it takes the VA 177 days to process an original claim and 657 days to process an appeal, Upton said. “This delay deprives many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan of much-needed income at a time in their lives when they are not only learning to cope with a disability but also transitioning into civilian life,” Upton said.
Ronald Augment, the VA’s deputy undersecretary for benefits, said the VA opposes the four bills, even though the agency shares many of the bills’ goals.
Hall’s bill to provide a $500 stipend for delayed benefits “would create an incentive to submit claims of dubious merit,” Augment said. And, for veterans whose claims are questionable, it creates a reason for the veterans to delay supplying information and evidence so they can get more money, Augment said. “A claimant’s cooperation with VA can reduce the time it takes to resolve a remand claim. Inversely, a claimant’s lack of cooperation can delay the resolution of a claim.”
The Donnelly-Upton bill presents a similar problem, Augment said. “VA is concerned that a presumption of service connection creates an incentive to file invalid claims, especially when benefits would be paid without appropriate claim development,” he said.
Even if the VA audited 25 percent of all file claims, “an unscrupulous claimant would still have excellent odds of obtaining and retaining benefits,” Augment said.
The VA opposes the bill giving grants for veterans’ outreach programs because it doesn’t give enough flexibility to reach veterans in small, rural communities, and because the VA is expanding its existing outreach program, he said.
Paying county and local veterans agencies to help process claims, the idea in HR 1435, would take money that ought to be spend by the federal government and apply it to local programs while raising questions about who, ultimately, is responsible for the claim, he said.
The VA was not alone in opposing the bills. Some of the same issues raised by Augment were also noted by Veterans of Foreign Wars and Paralyzed Veterans of America in their testimony before the disability assistance subcommittee.