By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., March 30, 2011 - Former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Tyrone Allen is part of a growing legion within the Veterans Affairs Department striving to make good on VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki's pledge to "break the back of the claims backlog."
The VA claims process took far too long, Allen said, noting that he's still awaiting adjustments as his back condition worsens.
But today, Allen is part of VA's fix -– he's a VA claims assistant working at the Huntington VA Medical Center in West Virginia. He's among a legion of more than 3,500 new employees VA has hired to expedite claims processing as it introduces other systemic improvements.
"It is really unacceptable that the backlog is as big as it is and it takes as long as it does for veterans to receive their claims," Deputy VA Secretary W. Scott Gould said during an interview here with American Forces Press Service.
VA's goal by 2015, he said, is for veterans to wait no more than 125 days for a decision on a claim, with a 98 percent accuracy rate.
Gould spoke about the claims process while participating in the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, an annual event that this year brought together more than 350 disabled veterans, including Allen.
VA completed 977,000 claims in 2009, but took in, for the first time, more than a million new ones. In 2010, VA completed 1 million claims, but received 1.2 million new ones. By the end of 2011, officials expect to receive 1.45 million claims –- a double-digit increase over the number of claims received in 2000.
Gould attributed many of the new claims to the new wave of combat veterans with complex medical issues just entering the VA system. However, he acknowledged, 65 percent were resubmissions from veterans already in it.
"We have been experiencing a growth in new claims, even as our overall production has been increasing," he said.
So to reach its goal, VA has attacked the challenge on three fronts, Gould explained.
The first involves people: hiring new claims processors and improving the way the VA trains them.
But "merely hiring more people to handle claims won't let us get ahead of the incoming surge, let alone cleave the size of the backlog," Shinseki has often said.
So VA is working to improve its systems and automate as quickly as possible. Its second major focus in reducing the backlog involves "reinvesting and re-engineering the business process we use to complete the claims," Gould said. This includes accepting online applications for initial disability benefits, initiating an innovation competition and launching more than 30 pilot programs and initiatives to identify best practices.
Finally, VA is investing in new technology to support these efforts. Gould said he's particularly excited about one recent accomplishment, the result of a pilot program for the paperless Veterans Benefits Management System that VA plans to deploy in fiscal 2012.
"We completed our first all-electronic claim in just 47 days," Gould said of the pilot that's being conducted in Rhode Island. And although the claim involved was relatively simple and straightforward, Gould called entirely automated processing capability it proved a major step toward VA's goals.
VA's fiscal 2012 budget request includes $2 billion to support these claims-processing initiatives, up 19.5 percent over fiscal 2010.
"So we are very optimistic that we can achieve our goal of no claim taking longer than 125 days with 98 percent quality," he said. "And right now, we are just not meeting either of those standards."
Gould said he's confident VA is on the right track in reaching Shinseki's goals to end the claims backlog by 2014. "We think we can get there," he said. "It is something we have got to fix together."
Allen said he's proud of the role he's personally playing in helping to reach these goals -- scheduling hearings, contacting veterans and helping to process their applications.
"I'm helping to make sure veterans get what they need, and that when they apply for something, everything goes through without delay," he said. "I have been where they are, so I understand the importance of trying to make things happen as speedy as possible."
W. Scott Gould
National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic
Department of Veterans Affairs