The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to eliminate a two-day review period for disability claims, but lawmakers and veterans' advocates say it could lead to delays and infringe on veterans' rights during the coronavirus pandemic.
Veteran Service Organizations representing millions of former service members and their families or survivors sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to order the VA to maintain its current process for applying for benefits during the coronavirus pandemic and postpone any changes.
The VA plans to end a longstanding practice of allowing representatives from veteran service organizations (VSOs) to help veterans review their benefits decisions for accuracy before they're finalized -- potentially helping avoid the need for appeals. These decisions determine the amount of compensation veterans receive for service-connected injuries or illnesses.
Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) representatives find mistakes in as many as 7 percent of the claims they help review.
VA's policy says department-accredited representatives, such as those at VSOs, have 48 hours to review a decision on behalf of a veteran.
But VSO leaders said VA leadership left them out of the decision.
"VA made this decision without consulting VSO partners about the impact this change would have on veterans" and planned to make the change "amidst the chaos of the COVID-19 crisis," they wrote in their letter.
Top Veterans Affairs lawmakers in Congress also called for VA to postpone changes to the disability claims process and to involve VSOs and members of Congress in future decisions.
House Veterans Affairs Committee leaders, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie calling on him to delay the planned elimination of a 28-hour review period for disability claims and work with VSOs on alternative plans.
"We urge the department to consider postponing any change to the 28-hour review period until after VA, VSOs and Congress are able to have a more thorough discussion about this policy change," lawmakers wrote. "VSOs, as well as other representatives and agents, provide veterans and their loved ones with invaluable assistance while navigating the department's disability claims process. The 48-hour review period provides a brief opportunity for VSOs to review rating decisions for errors or technical corrections before the decisions are finalized, thereby quickly and efficiently improving the accuracy of claims and reducing the need for appeals."
VSOs told lawmakers that eliminating that review period could result in delayed benefits for veterans and increase appeals or other formal corrective actions.
VFW was the first organization to call for VA to halt the changes after the organization said VA Undersecretary of Benefits Paul Lawrence announced the change during a meeting with veteran organizations last month. VSOs were told the change could start as soon as April 24.
When VA failed to respond to initial requests to postpone the changes, lawmakers and VSOs sent letters to the president, asking him to intervene.
VA officials said the decision to eliminate the 48-hour review was because its online claims system, established in 2013, made the review process "obsolete." Now, VSOs and veterans have access to benefit claims records through the process and should no longer need the 48-hour review.
"Since all veteran records, documents and other materials are now scanned or transmitted electronically, veterans service organizations and other accredited representatives have access to their clients' records throughout the claims process in real-time," VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets. "This is a marked improvement over the limited, 48-hour review period under the old system."
But advocates and veterans said they would rather keep the review period to make certain the claims don't contain any errors instead of having to file lengthy appeals later.
Leaders from VFW, Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, the Military Officers Association of America, AMVETS and the National Association of Country Veterans Service Officers signed on to the letter to the president.