There may have been no intention to make it harder for veterans to receive disability compensation, but an Obama administration proposal to change the way veterans apply for benefits is doing just that.
The shameful backlog in veterans disability claims that has been documented in the past is at the root of the problem. Currently, there are about 400,000 veterans who have been waiting more than 125 days for a decision. The situation has been slowly improving, and more needs to be done. However, while this latest proposal could speed some claims, it could also help the backlog numbers by discouraging some veterans from applying for benefits they have earned.
The Department of Veterans Affairs says that the numerous ways in which a veteran can request disability compensation and how those requests reach the VA are part of the backlog problem.
In order to cut down on the confusion, the VA would require veterans to use a standard form when they file for disability compensation or appeal a decision. The agency would add incentives for those who use a computer.
Sounds simple enough, unless you happen to be a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or are homeless, unemployed and lack ready access to a computer.
Half of the 1.2 million claims that come into Veterans Affairs are not on VA forms. Most times a veteran simply sends in a letter requesting help. Then the VA mails the veteran the proper forms, which the veteran fills out and mails back.
Of greater concern is the possibility that the proposed changes will cost veterans some of their benefits.
Now, the date an informal request is received becomes the trigger date for benefits. After the lengthy approval and appeals process plays out, benefits can be paid retroactively to that trigger date. The VA wants to change the trigger to the day the completed application is received, a process that can take months and reduce the size of retroactive benefits.
The process of appealing the denial of benefits is also becoming more difficult because the required form can be challenging for some veterans. A disabled veteran with PTSD or TBI has to describe what the VA did wrong and why the agency is wrong, which amounts to a formal court pleading that can be difficult for a veteran with cognitive problems to complete.
Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and other veterans groups are understandably upset at the proposed changes.
Applying for veterans disability benefits should be as rapid and simple as possible. These men and women put their lives on hold to serve their country. If they become disabled, the nation has an obligation to do what it can to help.
Trying to achieve efficiency is a worthwhile goal and should speed the claims process for most veterans. But the VA can’t just write off veterans who may have difficulty navigating the process.
The VA needs to re-examine its proposal to make sure it is properly balancing the need for speed and efficiency with the needs of all veterans.