The practice, known as brokering, is one of the Department of Veterans Affairs strategies for balancing the agency’s overall workload, which began growing out of hand in recent years as additional conditions for Vietnam-era chemical exposure were rated as “compensable” and troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began filing claims.
The longest-standing claims – those that by VA’s own standard have not been resolved for at least four months – now total just under 400,000 nationally. Brokering has had an outsized impact in Delaware.
In the past year alone, the Baltimore and Philadelphia Veterans Benefits Administration offices have transferred hundreds of claims to far smaller Wilmington – even as hundreds of more complex appeals cases have been farmed out to other centers, including Philadelphia.
As a result, veterans are waiting longer because VA’s stated policy is to get the oldest cases taken care of first.
“They have been moved to the head of the line,” said Beth McCoy, VBA’s assistant deputy under secretary for field operations, of the older claims, whether transferred or not.
She said the policy has been a success, with all but 200 of the 67,000 two-years or older cases on the VA’s books last April now eliminated. Wilmington’s total of two-year-old claims is down to zero, McCoy said. The total of Delaware veterans waiting more than one year stood at about 130 in October 2012.
That figure, she said, has fallen to 58. Those oldest settled claims at Wilmington would presumably include that of New Castle resident Dave Roberts, who began suffering migraine headaches in the early 1980s during extended military police duty with the Army. He finally filed for compensation and was awarded a rating of 30 percent in 2007. The current payment for a veteran so rated, without dependents, is $400.93 per month.
VA says just the opposite. Moving the caseload to one of 15 brokering centers around the country – Wilmington is one of them – and the increasing ability to do so electronically rather than with paper files is really increasing the efficiency and the effectiveness of the claims system, McCoy said.
“We know veterans have waited too long,” McCoy said. “It’s not acceptable to us.” A leading lobbying group for modern-day war veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, agrees there’s been progress, as does VFW’s current state veteran service officer.
“There are improvements,” said VFW’s David Dilliard, “and I’m seeing them at ground level.” But after months of improvement through 2013, the falling backlog has stalled – leading an official at IAVA, which recently issued an extensive analysis of the backlog and recommended fixes, to wonder if all of VA’s efforts to automate and streamline the cumbersome process haven’t peaked.
Those transfers have caused significant increases at mostly smaller regional service centers such as Wilmington’s. Eleven months ago, on 30 MAR, Wilmington had 654 original and supplemental claims over the 125-day guideline, representing 52.7 percent of all claims.
As of Feb. 22 that number had grown to 1,043 – 65.4 percent of 1,596 total claims. In August, when the News Journal last reported on the local backlog, it had a total of 1,373 cases, with 838 of them more than four months old. The total number of cases and the percentage of older cases – 61 percent – all have continued to grow. Meanwhile, the backlog at Baltimore, which stood on March 30 at 15,661, fell by 7,300 over the succeeding five months.
Baltimore accomplished this largely by brokering cases to six other service centers, including Wilmington. Over that time, Baltimore and Philadelphia transferred nearly 800 cases to Wilmington, according to government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
“It’s fluid,” McCoy said. “Some offices are going to creep up a bit, while many are going to be brought down. It’s good service to veterans across the country. State by state has a fluctuation. It’s a downward trend overall so that no veteran is waiting more than 125 days by the end of 2015.”
While claims from more recent veterans often seek initial compensation for larger numbers of medical issues than did those of an earlier era, older veterans are typically filing supplemental claims for additional benefits due to a worsening condition, or a subsequent problem that has arisen and is presumed to be related to their military service.
These make up more than two-thirds of all pending claims, the VA says. Being older, they are nearly all paper-based and can take up multiple folders and binders containing related medical and operational documentation.
To ease the process, VA is now paying a contractor to scan the voluminous paperwork so it can be more easily be transferred from the veteran to the VA and, when VA deems it necessary, to another service center for processing.
“Now we’re in our paperless system – that anchor has been taken away from us,” said VA’s McCoy. “That claims folder is viewable and available to us instantaneously. So when we file a claim – if you file a claim, you can see that claim – if it comes in paper, we send it off to a scanning vendor to be scanned and be uploaded into the paperless system. So anybody who needs to see that folder, we can do it.”
Tarrantino feels that relationships are critical.
“There is still a need for a veteran to have some sort of physical interaction” with the VA. That wouldn’t appear to be the way VA is going. Brokering, which began “about a decade ago,” according to VBA’s McCoy, remains a temporary fix. “We’re moving away from that model of brokering centers to a national work queue,” she said.
In other words, a VBA spokesman explained, the ability to centrally assign cases based on workload and staffing at various centers. Withrow thinks VA should go in the opposite direction and decentralize operations it has consolidated in recent years, returning adjudication of all claims to the 57 regional offices, all of which used to process every type of veteran claim, be it for disabilities, survivor benefits or pensions.
Just as important, Withrow said, is making accuracy a higher priority. VA says its workers processed 1 million claims a year for three years in a row from 2010 through 2012, although the number of new cases continues to outpace the number processed.
The most recent report of the Board of Veterans Appeals, published a year ago showed 45.8 percent of its 44,300 decisions during fiscal year 2012 were remanded to service centers because they were incorrect or incomplete. VA aims for a 98 percent accuracy rate, and currently claims a 12-month rolling average rate of 89.9 percent.
That’s roughly 5 percent higher than in 2011, VA says. The American Legion questioned those accuracy statistics at a 4 DEC hearing of a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee, noting that at one service center it visited, in Nashville, TN, its team found seven errors in 22 claims it reviewed.
In the previous three months, the Legion said, the VA claimed a 95.1 percent accuracy rate for the Nashville office. Media, and even congressional, questions about VA’s claims production are slow to get answered, if ever. Curt Cashour, spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Committee, provided a list of 50 instances, with story links, of news reports for which VA denied requests for comment; as of late January, he said, the committee itself had 121 outstanding requests for information.