Friday, April 19, 2013 | 2:54 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Less than 24 hours after the bulk of Nevada’s delegation sent a letter to Veterans Affairs insisting the department address a mounting backlog of claims in the regional office with authority over Nevada, they have an answer: The VA will start prioritizing the worst cases immediately.
The VA announced Friday that it would begin making provisional decisions on claims that have been pending for a year or more — a step that the VA says would “allow Veterans to begin collecting compensation benefits more quickly.”
“Too many veterans wait too long for a decision, and this has never been acceptable,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement released with the announcement of the policy. “That is why we are implementing an aggressive plan to eliminate the backlog in 2015.”
The VA has been facing a deadline of 2015 to erase its backlog, but progress has been slow, especially in regions such as Nevada, where more than 10,000 veterans are part of a backlog that averages out at 475 days — or 1.3 years — per claim. More than 4,200 Nevada veterans have been waiting on their claims for more than a year.
Last month, VA undersecretary for benefits Allison Hickey told Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Nevada Rep. Dina Titus in separate hearings before congressional committees that the rules of the claims review process set up procedural and communications hurdles that needed to be cleared before claims could be fully processed. She also said recent staff departures in the Reno region had helped the backlog grow, but she did not request extra resources.
Nevada lawmakers weren’t fully satisfied, and on Thursday, five of the six members of the delegation — all except 2nd Congressional District Rep. Mark Amodei — penned a letter to Hickey and VA Reno office director Edward Russell, stressing that while “we recognize there are multiple factors contributing to the number of veterans’ claims entering the system...addressing the claims backlog must be a priority regardless of these factors.”
The new policy won’t entirely dispense with the procedural delays. But it will provide veterans who have been in limbo with some relief while they wait to have the full extent of their claims processed.
Under the new way of doing business, VA claims that have been pending for more than a year will receive a provisional decision, based on all the documents and evidence that the VA has procured to date.
After receiving a decision on benefits, veterans will still have a year to submit more evidence and documentation and petition to have their benefits increased, if they disagree with the VA’s preliminary ruling.
Veterans who need a medical examination to complete their claims will receive on in an expedited fashion.
But while the VA talks about expediting claims, it does not attach a specific time frame to how quickly the expedited process will work.
In fact, there appears to be a disclaimer at the end of the VA press release announcing the policy warning that “the focus on processing the oldest claims will cause the overall measure of the average length of time to complete a claim...to skew, rising significantly in the near term because of the number of old claims that will be completed.
“Over time, as the backlog of oldest claims is cleared...VA’s average time to complete claims will significantly improve.”
That comes as comparatively bad news for those Nevada veterans whose have not been part of the backlog for as long as those veterans in the more egregious cases.
Despite remaining uncertainties about when long-suffering Nevada veterans will be able to start receiving benefits, Nevada lawmakers are calling the policy change a positive step.
“I am pleased the VA has taken a step forward to help ease veterans’ financial burden until their claims are fully processed,” Heller said in a statement. “Still, much more needs to be done, and I am ready to help in any way I can.”
In a statement in which she also said she would introduce legislation to require the VA to further streamline and expedite the review process, Titus said, “I am pleased that the VA will provide veterans in Nevada the benefits that they have waited far too long to receive.”