Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski discusses efforts to reduce disability… (JONATHAN ERNST, Reuters…)
WASHINGTON — — As officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs look internally for solutions to a claims backlog that is drawing increasing fire from Capitol Hill, they are also reaching for outside help from some of the nation's best-known veterans groups.
Under pressure to speed the review of nearly 600,000 long-outstanding claims for veteran benefits, the VA has announced that it is teaming up with the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans to help ensure that new applications are complete and error-free so they can be processed more quickly.
The groups have agreed to guide wounded and ill veterans through what's known as a "fully developed claim" process, which means they will submit medical records and other documents along with their initial application rather than waiting until a review is underway to compile that paperwork.
VA officials say the streamlined process can cut average review times in half, to just over 100 days.
Verna Jones, director of the American Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission, said the process "creates segmented or express lanes."
"We're very hopeful about this particular project," Jones said.
The agency announced the formal partnership with the service organizations on Tuesday, a day before lawmakers summoned VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Capitol Hill to explain their plans to address a decades-old problem that has attracted new attention recently.
"We're on the brink of Memorial Day — many people will salute our veterans," said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who organized the meeting and who has been outspoken on the backlog. "We want to salute our veterans not only with words but with deeds."
Baltimore's VA office is one of the worst-performing in the nation, weekly data released by the agency show. More than 81 percent of the 16,000 disability claims at the office are more than 125 days old. The national average is about 67 percent.
The error rate in Baltimore, which serves all of Maryland, is the highest in the country at 25.8 percent.
Officials say the new program could help bring down both of those numbers. Currently, four in 10 veterans navigate the claims process without any assistance — and often omit necessary paperwork or include extraneous documents that ultimately slow a decision.
"You wouldn't go to court without an attorney," Jones said. "We're trained and we … don't send in anything that would harm them or miss something that would have them denied."
The VA's effort follows a larger, government-wide trend in which agencies are relying increasingly on nonprofits to deliver services.
The United Way, for instance, is heavily engaged in an Internal Revenue Service program that has helped about 1.6 million low-income families file tax returns.
A 2010 study from the Urban Institute found that nearly 33,000 human service nonprofits have a contract at some level of government.
"All levels rely heavily on charitable nonprofits to provide services on behalf of government," said David L. Thompson, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits.
To prepare for the veterans initiative, Jones said, American Legion service officers visited several VA field offices, including Baltimore's, to review the types of documentation required to file the streamlined claims.
Veterans must sign a form indicating that they have no additional evidence to submit. The VA is still responsible for collecting documents from other federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense.
"It's not much different as far as what you have to fill out," said Brett Buchanan, a claims agent with Allsup, an Illinois-based company that helps individuals across the country file disability claims. "Where it's different is that the veteran is gathering a lot of the evidence that otherwise the VA would have to go out and get."
Meagan Lutz, a VA spokeswoman, said the agency hopes to bring more veterans groups on board in coming months "to work more closely with service officers who are on the ground helping veterans every day, to expedite claims."
The agency's push toward streamlined applications appears to be having an impact. The VA is receiving about 700 fully developed claims a day, representing roughly 10 percent of all claims, according to agency data. That's up from about 3 percent of all claims filed in January.
Shinseki, who was wounded in Vietnam, has vowed to eliminate the claims backlog by 2015.
To accomplish that goal, the agency has focused mainly on replacing its paper claims with an electronic system. During their meeting on Capitol Hill last week, Shinseki, Hagel and Acting Social Security Administration Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin also vowed that their agencies would work more closely together on the issue.
The American Legion, headquartered in Indianapolis, was created in 1919 to help veterans returning from World War I. Its nationwide membership has declined in recent decades as many other groups have been created, but it nevertheless retains 2.4 million members.
"They earn benefits," Hagel said. "They deserve, at the end of that career, those benefits.
"You take care of your people. It's that simple."
VA's claims backlog
A look at the percentage of VA claims pending for more than 125 days.
Baltimore // National
Jan., 2012: 79.2 percent // 65.5 percent
Dec., 2012: 83.3 percent // 67.6 percent
May, 2013: 81.5 percent // 66.9 percent
Source: U.S. Veterans Administration