VA unveils standardized disability claim and appeal forms

By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

The Veterans Affairs Department is switching its entire disability claims and benefits process to standardized forms and moving away from allowing veterans to write their interpretation of a claim on a piece of paper and handing it to the agency.

Tom Murphy, VA’s director of Compensation Services, said it would take the guesswork out of the process, so claims representatives can focus entirely on the claim and not waste time trying to figure out exactly what the veteran is asking for, or trying to track them down to ascertain the information.

“It puts us in line with what all government agencies [do] — cities, states, local, federal — anything you’re looking for from an organization starts with a form,” said Murphy on a conference call Wednesday. “If you go to apply for Medicaid, go to Social Security, go to your local driver’s license bureau, the first thing they do is hand you a form and say ‘Tell us what it is you’re looking for.’ We’re simply bringing VA in line with that process.”

The actual rule went into effect six months ago, but it was delayed six months while the VA worked with veterans service organizations and VA employees to train them and explain how the new process works. Murphy reiterated the only new form veterans may need to complete is the “Intent to File” form, which allows them to start the claims process and ensure back payment while they collect the pertinent information they’ll need to finish.

The VA estimated about 50 percent of all new claims it receives under the new system would use or take advantage of the “Intent to File” form process.

“All the other forms that we’re talking about here are the same ones veterans have been using for years,” Murphy said. “We’re just saying, ‘I need you to use the form rather than write me a letter.'”

On top of the paper form, veterans can also call the agency to log their claim information, or fill out the online version at www.eBenefits.va.gov.

More transparency, financial stewardship

What the standardized form also eliminates is lack of documentation for the VA. Murphy said it was nearly impossible to know exactly how many veterans tried to start a claim through the informal, handwritten process.

“It didn’t have any structure to it, it didn’t have a recording mechanism, it didn’t have any way for me to sit down and say ‘It’s precisely this,'” said Murphy. “It’s the reason why we put this change in place, in the first place.”

The VA estimates the percentage of veterans that tried to file in the old system through informal, handwritten claims is in “the low double digits.”

The increased documentation is important for the VA as it tries to eliminate its backlog of disability claims, while also maintaining its overall financial oversight and itegrity. Midway through last year, the VA touted a 55 percent reduction in claims from the previous year. That was a backlog reduction from about 600,000 claims to 275,000.

But that estimate faced rigorous scrutiny from Congress and the agency’s assistant inspector general, Linda Halliday. When asked by the House Veterans Affairs Committee whether or not she believed the estimate, she said, “I don’t want to say I trust them.”

Furthermore, a report from Halliday’s office detailed about $85 million the VA paid during that time to veterans who couldn’t provide enough evidence they actually deserved the payments. Halliday estimated the agency could wind up with $371 million in questionable payments for the “100 percent disabled” category of disability claims by 2019.

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