The Department of Veterans Affairs is processing its backlog of disability claims faster than ever before, but is looking to accelerate this pace through an automation pilot it launched last month.
The VA is running the automation pilot through its newly created Office of Automated Benefit Delivery, an initiative that has the potential to dramatically reduce the time it takes to process an individual claim.
The pilot is processing claims within a day or two, while the traditional method of processing these claims currently takes well over 100 days, on average.
“Automation is the way that we’ll really break through this backlog and get vets their earned benefits as quickly as possible,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters Tuesday.
The VA currently has around 260,000 claims in its backlog right now, a significant increase compared to approximately 70,000 backlogged cases the agency had before the start of the pandemic.
“Despite COVID, we’re processing these claims faster than ever before in VA’s history … The challenge is that the claims are also coming in faster than ever before, making it difficult to drive the backlog down,” McDonough said.
McDonough said the VA plans to hire and train 2,094 additional claims processors and support staff before the end of spring.
The agency, he added, has already hired 1,078 of these employees, and 900 of them are already in training. In the meantime, the VA is using funds from the American Rescue Plan to pay overtime for claims processors.
Rob Reynolds, the acting deputy undersecretary of VA’s Office of Automated Benefit Delivery, said the agency launched the pilot last month to eliminate unnecessary medical examinations, streamline workflows and reduce manual processes.
The pilot is currently focused on claims related to service-related hypertension, and processing claims through the agency’s Boise Regional Office.
Reynolds said the automation pilot determines if there is sufficient medical evidence for disability rating purpose, and will pre-populate the rating calculator and draft a proposed rating decision.
If the medical evidence provided by the veteran is not sufficient, the algorithm will automatically request a medical exam from the veteran.
“Our solution really is to leverage technology and automate the administrative tasks and workflows that we currently have,” Reynolds said.
While the automation pilot can process claims in as little as one-to-two days, Reynolds said in cases VA needs to see the veteran for a medical exam, the claims are processed in about 50 days.
Reynolds said the automation pilot will help the VA make decisions more quickly, accurately and fairly, and will also provide a better user experience for VA employees and veterans.
The data used during the pilot comes from a veteran’s official record and is available for quality reviews, decision reviews or cases before the Board of Veterans Appeals.
As for the next steps, the VA is looking to expand the automation pilot to process additional types of disabilities and claims.
Reynolds said the team behind the pilot is currently looking at including asthma, sleep apnea and prostate cancer claims into the automation pilot, and is looking at adding three new diagnostic codes each quarter.
“With lessons learned, we can create a systemic, repeatable process for other claim types and leverage our enhanced automation claims process,” Reynolds said.