VA hiring to ‘maximum capacity’ to assist vets seeking PACT Act benefits

The Veterans Affairs Department’s benefits division is looking to bring several thousand hires onboard to “maximize its capacity,” as it prepares to implement legislation that will make millions of new veterans eligible for VA health care and benefits.

Charles Tapp, the Veterans Benefits Administration’s chief financial officer, told reporters Tuesday that more than 145,000 veterans already filed claims under the PACT Act.

“We want to encourage every veteran to come in and file. If you believe that you’ve been exposed to toxins or served in the areas of responsibility, we encourage you to come out and file a claim,” Tapp said. “That’s the gateway to open the door for the benefits and services that certainly have been earned, and certainly the gateway to open up the opportunity to receive health care.”

The PACT Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in August, gives VA the resources it needs to staff up its health care workforce to treat approximately 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances during their military service.

Hiring is currently underway to add more claims processors, and Tapp said the first cohort of these hires are onboard at VBA and going through agency training.

“There’s millions of eligible veterans who are going to come in and file claims, which we highly encourage. We want to make sure that we have the right number of people and the trained staff that we need to process those claims. The worst thing we want to do is have this certainly once-in-a-generation-level legislation come forward and become law, and then not be able to process them timely,” Tapp said.

VBA set a goal of hiring nearly 2,100 claims processors this spring, prior to the PACT Act becoming law.

While VBA is onboarding additional new hires, Tapp said the agency is “hiring to our maximum capacity,” with plans to hire “several thousand more” full-time hires to process PACT Act claims.

“We’re looking at the volume of claims we’re anticipating and then aligning the size of our workforce accordingly. We’re grateful that Congress has been very accommodating in terms of getting us the resources to successfully process these claims,” Tapp said.

VBA is seeing an uptick in calls and training its call-center employees on how best to assist veterans seeking to file a claim under the PACT Act. The agency is also contacting veterans who may be eligible for PACT Act benefits to educate them about the program, and reduce misinformation about how to apply.

“Veterans that are flagged as being Gulf War era, Vietnam era or post- 9/11 era that fit the criteria for PACT [Act], we’re sending out communications to them to invite them to come in and file claims this so they’re knowledgeable on what PACT is, and how to go about filing claims,” Tapp said.

Veterans can file a claim for free online at VA.gov. The site also provides veterans with a list of accredited agents and veterans service organizations (VSOs) that can also assist veterans with filing an initial claim, free of charge.

“There are some charges and fees that are allowable for appeals and other sequent claims, but for initial claims, they absolutely cannot charge you, by law,” Tapp said.

VBA is also taking steps to mitigate fraudulent claims or schemes that prey upon benefits-eligible veterans.

“We’ve very aware of some of those schemes and the commercials and the emails and the posts and the blogs, and we always encourage veterans to be conscious of who they’re working with,” Tapp said.

Veterans who receive a call from an organization looking to assist them with filing a PACT Act claim can call the VA’s national call center (1-800-827-1000), and have an agent verify if the organization is accredited.

Tapp said VBA is urging veterans not to sign any contracts with any unauthorized company agreeing to pay a fee to help with filing a claim. He also urged veterans to closely monitor their personal finances.

“A lot of times fraud happens when direct deposit accounts are changed. So we want to make sure that you keep your information with VA up to date, in terms of your email address, your phone numbers and your addresses,” Tapp said.

Tapp urged veterans to also check for any mailed notices sent from VA, since the agency sends written correspondence any time direct deposit information changes.

VBA is also using data analytics in the background with some of its industry partners to track potentially fraudulent activity.

“We can track and trace when we see things that are out of tolerance, or things that could be perceived or eventually be signs and indications of nefarious activities, in terms of fraudsters trying to engage our systems and to try to go about infiltrating our systems to divert funds away from veterans,” Tapp said.

VBA is able to track, for example, if multiple direct deposit changes are being requested from the same Internet Protocol (IP) address.

“Those are absolute red flags for us when we start seeing things that are not normal, out of tolerance, or certainly would be considered as a bit fishy,” Tapp said.

Tapp said the VBA anticipates a possible uptick in fraud cases in January, once it starts adjudicating PACT Act claims. The agency works closely with the VA inspector general office and the Justice Department to handle any potential fraud cases.

The VBA, meanwhile, is finalizing regulations that will provide guidance on how the agency will move forward with processing PACT Act claims at the start of calendar year 2023.

“The law is telling us the ‘what,’ and now the regulations allow us to do the ‘how.’ We want to make sure we’ve got the proper procedures in place to make sure that our rating specialists are moving forward smartly, as they’re processing the claims, so that we can do them both timely and have high quality because that’s what veterans deserve,” Tapp said.

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