Veterans Affairs Aims to Reduce Backlog of Disability Claims

The plan calls for regional offices of the Veterans Benefits Administration to issue so-called provisional rulings on all claims that are one year or older, provided a minimum level of evidence has been submitted to support those claims.

If claims are given provisional approval, veterans will start receiving benefits immediately, said Allison A. Hickey, the under secretary for benefits. Those benefits are based on ratings that quantify the severity of a disability. If veterans believe that their ratings are too low, they will have a year to submit additional information.

Once that year is over, the provisional rating will become final, under the new policy. From then on, veterans will be able to challenge decisions through the existing appeals process, a multilayered bureaucracy that can take years to adjudicate cases.

The 250,000 claims that have been awaiting decisions for one year or longer are part of the department’s backlog, which includes all claims pending for at least 125 days. That backlog is now at 570,000 claims.

Representative Jeff Miller, Republican of Florida, who is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has called for Ms. Hickey’s resignation, and some veterans’ advocates have questioned President Obama’s commitment to veterans because of the department’s inability to tame the backlog.

Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, has said that the department would eliminate the backlog in 2015, mainly by digitizing the process. But many advocates say that is unrealistic.

Both Democrats and Republicans responded to the initiative with a mixture of praise and skepticism. “While this new approach sounds promising, we will be monitoring it closely to make sure it’s good policy rather than just good P.R.,” Mr. Miller said in a statement.

Similarly, Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called for “presidential leadership” to eliminate the backlog. And Paul Sullivan, director of veteran outreach for a law firm, Bergmann Moore, questioned the new policy because it would not expedite claims that are on appeal, some of which are many years old.

In a telephone conference with reporters, Ms. Hickey said the new policy would almost certainly cause the average time required to complete a new claim — now 286 days — to increase temporarily, while processors focused on older claims. New claims filed on paper, instead of digitally, may face the biggest delays, the department said.

Ms. Hickey also said that the department would continue to give priority status to certain claims even if they were not one year old, including those from former prisoners of war and veterans who are terminally ill, homeless or in financial distress.

She added that the department would not hire processors to expedite the older claims, relying instead on personnel who have worked on Agent Orange claims for Vietnam veterans.

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