Emergency VA Lawyer Assistance. New Jersey Law Journal Editorial Board
A recent report of the General Accountability Office (No. 13-89, Jan. 18) about the handling of veterans’ disability and pension claims by the Department of Veterans Affairs is an eye-opener.
The starting point is a bleak comparison: Although the VA completed processing of 1 million claims for benefits in fiscal 2012, a 9 percent annual increase over 2009, the number of claims filed between 2009 and 2012 increased by 29 percent. As a consequence, as of August 2012 there were more than 850,000 pending claims, with 66 percent of them deemed backlogged. Although the VA’s target in 2011 was for an average processing period of 132 days, the current average is about 260 days.
Budget cuts, deterring increased staffing, have exacerbated the problem. To help reduce the backlog, the VA has employed new technology and innovations, such as paperless record-keeping and simplified terms and forms. Resources have been shifted from appeals to processing initial claims, and private contractors have been hired. Veterans are offered assistance by VA personnel and volunteer groups in filling out applications and obtaining required information.
Even so, the problems are mind-numbing. For example, relevant medical records are not fully computerized, and the high number of reservists and National Guard personnel serving in the war zone, on multiple tours, means that more VA claimants must rely on reserve and National Guard record-keeping systems, often handwritten only, that are not linked to or fully compatible with Department of Defense (and thus VA) medical and related computer records. Nor are Social Security Administration record systems fully compatible.
It gets worse. To improve claims processing, VA employees have been shifted from appeals to claims processing. That means fewer people available to analyze an applicant’s notice of disagreement with the initial claims decision (the first step toward appealing an adverse initial determination) and an appeals process that has slowed to a crawl. VA targets no more than seven days to enter a notice of disagreement into the system. Now the average is a staggering 43 days. The average time to process the notice is 390 days, and it takes a total of 580 days, on average, for an appeal to be certified.
Thankfully, lawyers in New Jersey and elsewhere have lent their assistance. Pro bono counsel are offered through the N.J. State Bar Association and the N.J. Department of Military Affairs. Veterans service organizations at regional VA offices also assist applicants in filling out the forms and marshaling the requisite medical and service information. The National Veterans Legal Services Program and its Lawyers Serving Warriors project offers pro bono services of lawyers at a number of national law firms and in-house legal departments. Lawyers now are allowed to assist or appear, on a fee basis, at some stages of the process.