Local Politics

Thursday, Jan 31 2013 04:42 PM

VA announces effort to speed up claims processing

BY CHRISTINE BEDELL Californian government editor cbedell@bakersfield.com

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday a new effort to quicken the processing of disability compensation claims, which was the subject of a critical audit initially called for by local Congressman Kevin McCarthy.

The initiative, called Acceptable Clinical Evidence, could end the requirement that some veterans seeking benefits undergo an in-person health exam when enough information about them is already available in records.

A Veterans Administration worker would fill out a questionnaire based on existing medical evidence about a vet and on a phone interview with him or her, a news release from the VA said.

"ACE is a process improvement that will help us meet our goal to eliminate the claims backlog and provide more timely benefits to our veterans, their families and survivors," Undersecretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey said in the release. "The initiative also saves veterans the inconvenience and costs associated with attending a medical examination."

The release said that in a 15-month pilot program at one processing office, 38 percent of claims met the program's criteria. The initiative is part of a bigger, five-year plan to process all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy in 2015.

In mid-January, the Government Accountability Office highlighted what is slowing claims processing and said things are likely to get worse as 1 million service members become veterans over the next five years given the reduction in troops stationed mainly in Afghanistan.

In response, the VA outlined various ways it's trying to tackle the problem, such as electronic patient record sharing by government departments involved in deciding what benefits vets ought to receive.

McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and other lawmakers had asked for the VA audit based on constituent complaints.

"The men and women who risked all to defend American values at home and abroad deserve better than this," he said in a statement when the GAO report was released. "If VA does not take immediate and substantive steps to address these problems, the House will."

In what McCarthy's office called good news Wednesday, it was determined that a House subcommittee hearing scheduled on the claims backlog for Feb. 13 would instead be a hearing of the full House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

But, it said, the date was going to be pushed back to sometime in the future.

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