January 01, 2014

Navigating the VA Disability Claims Process

Amy F. Odom

Recently, much has been said about the backlog of claims plaguing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability compensation system. The backlog has been a focal point of many media stories covering the VA, and both houses of Congress have held several hearings to determine the cause of, and the solution to, the problem. In January 2013, the VA released its Strategic Plan to Eliminate the Compensation Claims Backlog (available at www.benefits.va.gov/transformation/docs/VA_Strategic_Plan_to_Eliminate_the_Compensation_Claims_Backlog.pdf), in which it defined “the backlog” as “any disability claim over 125 days old.” The VA estimated that, at the end of fiscal year 2012, over half a million claims fit this description and several hundred thousand more claims would be considered part of the backlog at the end of fiscal year 2013.

While those numbers may seem staggering, keep in mind that the VA’s definition of “the backlog” includes only claims that are awaiting an initial decision; it does not include claims that have been administratively appealed or claims that have been appealed to the federal courts. An estimated quarter of a million additional claims are currently in appeal status before the VA, and the Washington Post has reported that those veterans and survivors will wait an average of 1,598 days for a final decision on their claims. The 3,649 or so veterans and survivors who then seek judicial review of the VA’s decisions in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) will wait another 321 days on average for a decision, which in many cases will be a remand to the agency for further development or fact-finding. Steve Vogel, Veterans Face Another Backlog as a Quarter-Million Appeal Disability Claims, Wash. Post, Sept. 10, 2013. Of course, the 321-day figure grows exponentially if the veteran or the VA seeks further review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, or ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court.

So what’s the holdup? Why do veterans and their survivors have to wait so long for a decision on their claims? The answer to that question is not clear-cut and is likely multifactorial. Some say it’s because of the increase in claims from the new population of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Others say it’s because of the rising number of aging veterans who are now leaving the workforce and who look to VA disability compensation as a means of supplementing their income. Still others say it’s because of the increasing complexity and sophistication of veterans benefits law in the wake of Congress’s creation of the CAVC in 1988. However, a look inside the VA disability claims process may also provide a few answers.

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