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VA program for new vets slowly improving; accuracy still a concern, watchdog says

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Change is slow for service-members joining the care of the Veterans Affairs Department, but the agency has been reducing the wait times for new beneficiaries, an investigation found.

In 2013, veterans only needed to wait through 99 days of delays when transitioning from the medical care of the Defense Department to the VA, an improvement over 196 days of delays in 2011, said a report released Tuesday by the VA's internal watchdog, the Inspector General.

The Veterans Benefits Administration's Quick Start Program offers members of the military a "seamless transition" into VA's health care system once they leave active duty, and processed 30,900 disability claims last fiscal year.

Improvement has been gradual but steady, the IG said. The agency was able to reduce the Quick Start disability claims backlog by half — 8,800 claims — and reduced the average wait time for new veterans from 291 days in 2011 to 249 days between April and June last year.

But the accuracy in processing those claims is still a concern. The VA was able to improve the amount of claims it correctly processes by 7 percent in two years, but that still means that as of 2013, only 69 percent of claims are being correctly dealt with.

"Accuracy rates are still considered low because of insufficient oversight and training, and conflicting guidance on granting service connection for medical disabilities," the IG said. "The delay in payments had the potential to adversely affect veterans' quality of life."

Investigators noted a number of specific examples, including a member of the military who was diagnosed with hearing loss while on active duty, but was denied service by the VA.

Officials at the VA disagreed that the backlog and accuracy problems are a result of the program. Instead, the agency is dealing with a larger number of claims thanks to better outreach by the VA to veterans informing them of their benefits.

"VBA has worked diligently to address the challenges associated with an increasing number of disability claims filed by our nation's veterans The challenges are significant and often result from factors outside VBA's control."

But investigators said that VA officials often did not review the operations and controls they had in place, nor whether the program was being as effective as it should be. VA staff who are suppose to be dealing with the Quick Start claims are often reassigned to other duties in the agency, further slowing down the process.

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