In Philadelphia and its surrounding counties, it takes an average of 356 days for veterans to get a response on health claims. Reducing this massive backlog statewide is the target of a new, bipartisan working group launched Thursday.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania is working with Repuiblican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada on the issue, which has persisted despite numerous initiatives to curb the problem.
The backlog is “north of 300 days, closer to 400 days on average, and that’s just unacceptable,” said Casey, a Democrat. “We’re a state that has over a million veterans, none of them should be subjected to that kind of delay.”
Veterans can submit claims for injuries, skin cancer, sexual trauma, post-traumatic stress and other conditions to receive benefits.
Wanda Pate Dennis is a coordinator at the Philadelphia Veterans Advisory Commission, established by City Council to connect veterans with resources. She explained that veterans work with a power of attorney to gather their medical and other records. These records are sent to a regional office where they are rated on a scale of one to 100.
“Once it reaches a 10 percent rating, it starts to have a monetary value also as well as you’re receiving medical,” Dennis said. “One hundred percent would mean that you are totally and permanently disabled.”
Dennis says that claims frequently get stuck in processing because certain documents are missing. Veterans now understand the benefits they are entitled to more than ever, she said, which adds to the backlog.
“The key measure for any veteran that is trying to get their claims through is to keep up with what’s going on with their claim,” Dennis said. “Don’t take no for an answer. Keep the good fight on getting your benefits.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs committed in May to eliminate the claims backlog by the end of 2015 and to process all new claims within 125 days. They have instituted a paperless system and VA claims processors are working mandatory overtime through September.
“Our employees … themselves are veterans,” says Beth McCoy, an assistant deputy undersecretary at the Veterans Benefit Administration, which manages the claims processing at the ROs. “They’re dedicated to this work. They want to make this better for veterans.”
McCoy says the number of veterans seeking benefits has increased with the downturn in the economy and 10 years at war.
The offices of the two senators are the primary participants in the new working group, but Casey says they will reach out to other organizations and the VA itself. He expects the group will release a set of recommendations this fall.