Bill: Have VA pay old claims automatically

(MILITARY TIMES)   A North Carolina lawmaker proposes tackling the backlog of veterans’ disability claims by awarding benefits to veterans after 18 months if their claim hasn’t been processed.

Veterans Affairs Department officials have told Congress they are, on average, processing disability compensation claims within 162 days and have a goal of cutting the average to 120 days. But Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., is one of many lawmakers who think there is a limit to how patient veterans could be in waiting for money they are due.

“Backlogs are at the point where veterans must wait an average of six months for a decision on benefits claims and some veterans are waiting as long as four years,” Butterfield said in a statement. “Veterans deserve better than this.”

Butterfield introduced a bill on Friday, HR 3087, that would automatically approve a veteran’s claim if no decision is made by the VA within 18 months. The bill doesn’t say exactly how the VA would do this, but creates a task force to monitor VA to make sure the 18-month deadline isn’t met with an arbitrary denial just before the claim must be paid.

The bill comes as the number of unprocessed veterans claims exceeds 915,000 — a 100,000 jump since the beginning of the year. In testimony two weeks ago before a House committee, VA officials said the current 162 days is 17 days less than one year ago, a sign that they are beginning to make process.

Butterfield’s legislation, though, focuses on the estimated 20 percent of claims that are not easily resolved, usually because the claim involves a veteran claiming multiple disabilities from a variety of causes who is not able to provide documents that show a clear link to military service for all of the disabilities.

A deadline might help force the VA to move faster, Butterfield said. “The decision should be made within 180 days,” Butterfield said. “Providing a deadline gives the VA an added incentive to make a timely decision, and provides our veterans with an assurance against claims languishing for years.”

The bill was referred to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for consideration, a panel that has discussed the idea of having claims automatically approved if they languish. The VA and some veterans’ service organizations have opposed the idea, worried that a deadline encourages shortcuts by the VA — like quick denials — and also might lead some veterans to file extremely complicated and not well-documented claims in an effort to make the process drag out beyond the automatic payment deadline.

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