VA hopes to jumpstart claims processing

Monday - 12/20/2010, 10:29am EST

By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

The Veterans Benefits Administration has begun using a public online portal to accept and process new claims for Vietnam-era disabilities connected to the herbicide Agent Orange. This Veterans Affairs Department hopes this pilot can lead the way to improve how the agency processes claims across dozens of disability categories in the near future.

The Fast Track system began accepting Agent Orange claims this fall. VA officials said at a media briefing on Friday that they intend to begin expanding it in 2011 to eventually let veterans apply for any of up to 70 types of service-connected disabilities.

Using Fast Track, veterans submit their initial claims online, but more importantly, Peter Levin, VA's chief technology officer, said it will let private doctors validate them electronically.

"This of course is going to improve our accuracy, it's going to improve our fairness, it's going to improve the equity that we value," he said.

Although the VA has always been able to accept medical evidence from private physicians, those documents are often submitted in a format that doesn't comply with the agency's requirements, said Michael Walcoff, acting under secretary for benefits. In those cases, VA has to send the veteran to one of its own facilities and repeat the private doctor's work, delaying a claim for 30-to-40 days.

"The idea here is if the veteran is going to be submitting private medical evidence, why not give him a form to use so that when his doctor fills it out he's giving us the information we need so that we can make the decision on his claim without having to send him to (a VA hospital)," Walcoff said.

VA developed the system in response to Secretary Eric Shinseki's decision to establish the presumption for Vietnam vets who were exposed to Agent Orange that certain types of leukemia, Parkinsons disease and heart disease are connected to their military service. After that decision, VA expected up to 200,000 new claims and didn't want to excessively overburden an already backlogged claims system.

Walcoff said the agency believes a more automated system with less paperwork is the only way the agency can improve its claims processing time.

"Ideally, with Fast Track, the doctor will be able to pull down from our website the particular form that's needed for a particular disability," he said. "He'll fill it out online, he'll submit it electronically and it'll go into a portal that feeds a rules-based system that will spit out a proposed decision for the veteran."

A final decision would then be made by a VA employee.

VA officials said that although they still have a backlog of about 250,000 claims for all disabilities and expect to receive more than a million new ones in the coming year, they have begun to move them through the system more quickly. Shinseki has set the bar at no more than 125 days to process a claim, and officials said fewer and fewer claims are reaching the 125 day mark.

VA chief of staff John Gingrich said Friday the agency can meet the secretary's challenge to completely eliminate the claims backlog by 2015, but the agency needs additional funding. The administration's budget request for fiscal 2011 includes a 27 percent increase in funding for the Veterans Benefits Administration. Gingrich said that would fund 4,000 new positions and more than $140 million in new IT procurement.

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