VA making claims inroads

Backlog of disability filings down 80 percent

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is gaining ground in its battle against a backlog of disability compensation claims, according to the regional director of the Veterans Benefits Administration, who attended an open house meeting Tuesday at Van Zandt VA Medical Center.

Four years ago, more than 400,000 such claims had languished longer than the 125-day target deadline for decisions, said Jennifer Vandermolen, whose office serves 27 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania and the West Virginia panhandle.

Now it’s down to 75,000 — an 80 percent reduction, she said.

A move to paperless handling of claims, a program that engages veterans associations for preparatory work, automation of administrative functions and mandatory overtime for VA employees have made the difference, Vandermolen said.

Her Pittsburgh office has been paperless for more than a year, she said.

The move away from paper has included a streamlined application process like that used by TurboTax or convenience store ordering kiosks — a software decision-tree that leads veterans through a series of questions step-by-step, helping to eliminate mistakes, Vandermolen said.

Enlisting the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans to help prepare applications for veterans has led to the filing of “decision-ready” claims, she said.

The program involved training association representatives in obtaining necessary evidence prior to filing, she said.

It takes advantage of the associations’ broad expertise, she added.

The automation of administrative functions has freed VBA employees to make claims decisions, Vandermolen said.

Disability payments are tax-free and monthly, according to the VBA website.

They’re paid based on a disease incurred or aggravated during active military service, according to the website.

Once filed, claims go to a service representative for review, along with the applicant’s military history, which is automatically forwarded from the Department of Defense, Vandermolen said.

The local VA hospital may also examine the claimant and the VBA may also obtain additional evidence before making a disability determination.

Disability findings can be based on damages from radiation exposure, hearing loss from big guns, a back injury from a fall, diabetes from Agent Orange, a traumatic brain injury from an explosion, or sickness from drinking contaminated water, for example, she said.

Disability can range from zero to 100 percent, with payments commencing at

10 percent and rising with the disability percentage.

Even zero percent disability carries a benefit: eligibility for VA treatment for the service-connected problem — hearing loss for example, Vandermolen said.

Anyone with a service-connected disability of

50 percent or more is eligible for all health care services and all medicine for free from the VA, according to Cindy Dunkle, chief of health administration service at Van Zandt.

The rules for VA health care eligibility are complicated, according to Dunkle, who handed over a booklet that details those rules.

The minimum duty requirement for most veterans who began their military service about the beginning of the 1980s is two years active duty, according to Dunkle and the booklet.

Generally, returnees from recent wars have been awarded five years free VA medical care, according to the booklet.

Veterans can learn their VA health care eligibility definitively by filing a 10-10EZ form.

It takes about 30 minutes to complete, according to instructions on the form.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.