Today, the full House Veterans' Affairs Committee passed U.S. Rep. John Hall
's (D-NY19) legislation to significantly overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) claims processing. The legislation passed the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs last week.
HR 5982, the Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Modernization Act of 2008, would make major changes to allow veterans to access the benefits they have earned faster and with less bureaucratic hassle.
Congressman Hall said at the Committee's markup meeting today, "It is abundantly clear that the current VA disability claims processing system is archaic and in dire need of modernization in many of its policy and operational areas. VA's Byzantine and convoluted internal bureaucratic structure creates a maze for disabled veterans, families, and survivors to navigate that is incomprehensible, leaving too many of them lost and overwhelmed. This bureaucracy has also resulted in a growing claims backlog, expected to reach one million, and the accompanying delays in processing are unacceptable. We must act now and intercede on behalf of these disabled veterans who are being left languishing in a system not capable of responding to their immediate needs."
Among other improvements, Hall's legislation would make it easier for veterans who have served in combat zones to obtain benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder by removing the VA's requirement that they prove exposure to a specific "stressor." Currently, the VA's regulations force veterans returning from war to prove that they were engaged in combat through incident reports, buddy statements, medals, etc.
"Veterans returning from war shouldn't have to leap hurdles to prove they experienced combat," said Hall, who serves as Chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. "I've been to Iraq to meet with soldiers there and I've talked to returning vets. There are no frontlines, there is no rear. The risk of combat is clear and immediate whether you're in Sadr City or the Green Zone."
Immediate Payment for Major, Unequivocal Service Injuries
Hall's bill would require immediate compensation for an undisputed service connected injury such as paralysis or a missing limb, even while other lesser injuries require further processing or adjudication. The VA's existing system can cause a veteran to wait for an average of six months while all issues are adjudicated before receiving any compensation for the major injury.
21st Century Technology
"21st century technology is all but absent in the claims processing system, with some claims still jammed into folders that get lost and others piled in stacks of paper with sticky notes and rubber bands containing vital information," said Hall.
Hall's legislation would require implementation within one year of comprehensive information technology upgrades, including web portals, rule-based expert systems, and decision support software to enhance it claims processing capabilities.
If a veteran dies while waiting for his or her claim to be processed, Hall's bill would allow an eligible survivor to take the veteran's place in line instead of being sent back to the beginning of the claims process.
"This legislation will lay the foundation for a more responsive, non-adversarial and cost effective VA that is deserving of the selfless service of our nation’s disabled veterans," said Hall. "We cannot profess to want to see veterans have better access to quality care, but then look for prejudicial ways to deny their compensation."
The White House Domestic Policy Office expressed their interest in the bill as "good government" and its deference to recommendations by the Veteran’s Disability Benefits Commission and the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors. Additionally, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), AMVETS, National Veterans Legal Service Program, National Organization of Veterans Advocates, Vietnam Veterans of America, National Association for Uniformed Services, The Retired Enlisted Association (TREA), and the American Federation of Government Employees have alls sent letters in support of The Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Modernization Act of 2008.