VA Secretary’s Ambitious Plan to Overhaul Claims System Shows Promise

Illustration of legal cases for asbestos and mesothelioma

Surprising or not, the Department of Veterans Affairs kept physical, paper files on each and every claim made by a veteran, and because the record keeping is cumbersome and archaic, many question why the VA has stuck to such an outdated claims system for so long, especially with the recent uptick of veterans needing support and services.

Boldly, VA Secretary Eric Shineski set an incredibly ambitious goal to entirely revamp the system – switching from paper to electronic files – by 2015. At the end of the switch, Secretary Shineski hopes that each individual claim, regardless of what type of claim, will be processed within 125 days with an accuracy of 98%.

Ambitious? Yes. But, it begs the question as to why the Secretary and the Department waited so long to not only tackle the problem of the insurmountable backlog but address the process that caused the backlog in the first place. Before the VA announced that the claims system will be slowly shifted to a digital platform, the problems were addressed on a smaller basis, often using bandaids.

The new system is already in place, and VA employees are struggling to keep up with the increase of claims and managing two claims systems simultaneously.

According to Secretary Shineski, the road to improvement is “ugly,” with many bumps yet to come. But, there is promise. Under the new system, claims would move through the VA faster and more efficiently, allowing VA employees to quickly access information digitally instead of having to pile through stuffed paper files.

As Wes Sheppard, Commander of the Huntington, West Viriginia Chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars pointed out in a Huffington Post article, many claims can take upwards of a year to be fully processed. Under the old claims system, veterans who are suffering from comprehensive and complicated illnesses wait for their benefits to kick in.

In some cases, the waiting period is longer than their lifespan, and oftentimes these veterans die before seeing any benefits. Veterans suffer from a litany of complicated medical conditions that often require constant care, and waiting for an extended period of time may not be an option. As it is the case with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, the time between a diagnosis and death is fairly short. These veterans, many who served on Navy ships or were stationed at Navy shipyards, may never see the benefits that they earned.

Secretary Shineski’s plan hopes to change that. Along with automation, many claims and forms that were previously filled out by VA employees, now rest on the veterans themselves. Further, veterans will be able to access where their claim is online.

Though the road to 2015 is certainly bumpy with many veterans frustrated that with the transition, an already long and laborious process is now even more challenging.