Senators push VA to cut disability claim backup in Ohio and U.S.

HINES, IL - MAY 30:  A sign marks the entrance to the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital on May 30, 2014 in Hines, Illinois. Hines,  which is located in suburban Chicago, has been linked to allegations that administrators kept secret waiting lists at Veterans Administration hospitals so hospital executives could collect bonuses linked to meeting standards for rapid treatment. Today, as the scandal continued to grow, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki apologized in public and then resigned from his post. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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HINES, IL - MAY 30: A sign marks the entrance to the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital on May 30, 2014 in Hines, Illinois. Hines, which is located in suburban Chicago, has been linked to allegations that administrators kept secret waiting lists at Veterans Administration hospitals so hospital executives could collect bonuses linked to meeting standards for rapid treatment. Today, as the scandal continued to grow, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki apologized in public and then resigned from his post. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Ohio’s U.S. senators are pressing the Department of Veterans Affairs to deal with a growing backlog in disability claims, and the VA says it’s trying.

Sens. Sherrod Brown, D, and Rob Portman, R, sent a letter this week to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, noting that the Veterans Benefits Administration got $275 million, much of it specifically to deal with the backlog, from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the American Rescue Plan. But as of April, much of that had not been obligated, the letter said.

“We request an itemized breakdown of funds that VA has obligated under both the CARES Act and the ARP specifically to address the C&P examination and claims backlogs,” Brown and Portman wrote.

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That stands for Compensation and Pension examination, an essential step in deciding a disability claim. Due to COVID-19, in April 2020 the VA halted all in-person C&P exams. Those gradually resumed, but the system changed, too.

“As you know, last fall, during a surge in the C&P examination backlog, VA suspended all C&P examinations and sent veterans to private contractors, with no notice to Congress,” the senators wrote.

Although the federal agency eventually resumed some in-house examinations, it continues to rely on contractors to perform about 90 percent of all C&P examinations, the letter says.

That percentage is not expected to change, according to detailed answers the agency provided via Public Affairs Specialist Gary Kunich. In Ohio, the Veterans Health Administration has 20 benefit examiners in its own facilities, and uses 406 private vendors at 387 other facilities to conduct exams under contract.

In a statement, Brown’s office said he began pressing the VA to deal with the claims backlog since the agency announced under the Trump administration that it would increase exam privatization. He questioned McDonough about the backlog at a hearing in June.

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Portman’s office did not reply to a request for comment by deadline.

The backlog is still rising: to 220,168 nationwide by Aug. 30, and expected to hit 250,000 by the end of October.

“Backlog is defined as the number of claims pending more than 125 days,” the agency said in response to Dayton Daily News questions.

Part of the increase this year is due to the April addition of more than 60,000 previously denied claims related to Agent Orange, under a consent decree; and the establishment in June of about 70,000 claims for review under three new disabilities recognized in relation to Agent Orange, according to the VA.

Ohio has 18,485 pending claims, with 5,602 — nearly a third — pending more than 125 days, the agency said. The VA has completed processing 36,559 Ohio claims since Oct. 1, taking an average of 115.5 days each.

From Oct. 1, 2020, to Aug. 30, 2021, the VA received 1.5 million disability claims and completed nearly 1.4 million of them, according to agency data. That’s roughly as many as in the preceding fiscal year, and more than either of the two years before that.

The VA is using CARES and ARP funds to pay overtime for claim processing, according to the agency’s statement. Its budget for the coming federal fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, includes more funding for claim processing, too.

If processes keep improving, the VA predicts the backlog will drop to 100,000 claims by the Sept. 30, 2023.

Exams are now exceeding previous capacity, and should continue to increase, the agency said. Veterans who previously deferred exams due to COVID-19 concerns will be contacted and encouraged to come in.

Record processing at the National Personnel Records Center has also increased, with help from VA personnel, cutting the backlog there to its pre-COVID-19 level. The agency is digitizing more than 15 million records by September 2022, which should speed future claim processing.

The senators’ letter said they approved of recent steps to cut the backlog, including increased use of online telehealth exams when possible.

“There are currently over 41,000 claims in which veterans chose not to appear for in-person C&P examinations needed to substantiate their disability claims,” they wrote. “Maximizing telehealth examinations when possible will make the claims process more accessible to veterans who have difficulty attending in-person examinations.”

Brown and Portman asked McDonough to work with the Biden White House to permanently fill the job of under secretary for benefits, which the senators said is critical for addressing the backlog.

The VA said McDonough appointed Thomas Murphy as acting under secretary for benefits on Jan 20. Murphy was previously Veterans Benefits Administrator Northeast District director, based in St. Louis.

He has overseen an increase in claim processing output, exceeding the previous record; cutting the time for some benefit adjustments nearly in half, extension of potential benefits to 3.7 million Gulf War veterans, and several other service and financial improvements, according to the agency.

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