By KEVIN FREKINGAssociated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Veterans waiting more than a year for a decision on their disability claims are moving to the front of the line, under a new program announced Friday.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is responding to criticism about the soaring number of claims that have been pending for longer than 125 days. The VA said that of the nearly 900,000 claims pending in the system, some 250,000 are from veterans who have been waiting at least a year for a decision.
Veterans receive disability compensation for injuries and illness incurred or aggravated during their active military service. The amount of the compensation is based on a rating assigned by the VA.
Allison Hickey, the VA undersecretary who oversees the Veterans Benefits Administration, says provisional decisions will be made on the oldest cases based on the evidence currently in the veteran's file. In some cases, medical exams will be required, and those will be expedited.
Veterans whose claims are granted would get compensation immediately. Veterans whose claims are denied will have a year to submit more information before the VA makes a final decision.
The VA projected that it will take up to six months to complete the 250,000 claims being targeted.
Lawmakers cautiously approved of the plan to focus on the oldest claims first, but Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, emphasized that it doesn't resolve the systemic problems that the VA faces because it relies on paper files. The VA is rolling out a new computer system designed to improve efficiency, but not all regional offices will have that system until the end of the year.
"We will be monitoring it closely to make sure it's good policy rather than just good PR," said Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
The number of disability claims pending has steadily grown over the past four years. The average time to resolve a disability claim has gone from 161 in fiscal year 2009 to 286 currently. Hickey warned that number will spike in the coming months as the VA focuses on the oldest cases first.
Hickey said a decision in late 2010 making it easier for Vietnam Veterans to qualify for compensation related to Agent Orange exposure brought about 260,000 new claims into the system. Those cases took precedent. Meanwhile, other types of claims poured in as result of 10 years of war and the downsizing of the military, and the backlog soared.
"Now, it is an appropriate time for us to go and really tackle those folks who have more than patiently waited," Hickey said.
Most veterans submitting claims are already receiving some disability compensation. They're citing new or aggravated conditions in an effort to get additional money.
The VA has traditionally given top priority in resolving disability claims to certain categories of veterans, such as the homeless, those who are terminally ill and those separating from the military for medical reasons. The veterans in those particular categories will retain their top-priority status. However, many others filing claims can expect that it will take longer for the VA to resolve their cases.
"It's great to see the VA finally taking more immediate and aggressive action to address this important issue for our veterans," said Paul Rieckhoff, the chief executive officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.