Hagel: DOD, VA Work Together to Cut Claims Backlog
By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 22, 2013 The Pentagon is committed to doing everything it can to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce the claims backlog, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a Senate panel today.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki participate in a roundtable discussion on the VA claims backlog hosted by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., May 22, 2013. DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion held by the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Hagel told lawmakers that the department’s responsibility is to ensure that service members have quality health care throughout their military careers and that their transition into the care of the VA is seamless and efficient.
The defense secretary noted that he led the first effort to computerize veterans’ claims during his time as deputy administrator of the VA under then-President Ronald Reagan. He praised current Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki for improving access to VA health care for Vietnam and Gulf War veterans and for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“As a former VA leader, senator and veteran I have been involved in veterans’ issues for many years, and have some understanding and appreciation of the complications and difficulties of this backlog issue,” Hagel said.
“One difficulty,” he added, “is that the majority of the backlog numbers represents veterans who served prior to Iraq and Afghanistan; meaning that veterans’ records from as far back as World War II are many times not available, or easily accessible, or have been lost.”
To address and help fix this problem, DOD has initiated several actions, Hagel said.
-- In January, DOD sent a team of experts to work side by side with Veterans Benefits Administration personnel to analyze the disability claims backlog and assist VA in processing claims, Hagel said.
-- DOD is providing VBA personnel with the ability to log directly into its electronic medical records system, allowing VA to process claims more quickly than under the current system for transferring records.
-- Similarly, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service provides accounts for VBA claims processors to directly access an individual's financial and service information.
-- Although service members transitioning under the Integrated Disability Evaluation System are not counted under the current backlog, in order to speed up the processing of these claims, DOD provided 15 soldiers to the VA site in Seattle. These soldiers are assisting in administrative tasks, freeing up VA adjudicators to focus on evaluating IDES claims.
“Because a very large percentage of VA backlog claims are from veterans who served prior to Iraq and Afghanistan, DOD and VA are taking steps to ensure that those currently serving will not face a similar backlog in the future,” Hagel said.
Those actions include:
-- Certifying service treatment records so that claims processors know not to hold up processing to request additional records;
-- Holding data-sharing summits every six weeks to look for ways to improve DOD and VA practices;
-- Conducting separation health assessments to establish baseline medical conditions, which will speed future disability benefits claims; and
-- Improving the format of DOD service treatment records so that they are portable and can be quickly scanned by other users.
“While these efforts won't reduce the current backlog,” Hagel said, “they will ensure that future generations of transitioning service members won't experience these challenges.”
The centerpiece of the department’s effort is the integrated electronic health record program, the defense secretary said. He noted that the program is a priority for President Barack Obama, Shinseki and himself, as well as for Congress.
“As we work to modernize our electronic health record system, DOD remains committed to our shared goal of achieving full interoperability of health care records,” Hagel said. “This is a complex and expensive undertaking. It is critical that we get it right.”
The DOD faces a different situation in its modernization effort than does the VA, he said. Where the VA was able to modernize around its previously existing electronic health record system, DOD cannot, Hagel explained.
Yesterday, the defense secretary directed the department to begin a best-value competitive process to select commercial applications that DOD will use to modernize its legacy electronic health record system.
“This will be done using open standards and systems in a way that ensures complete data interoperability with VA,” Hagel said.
“As I've said, DOD has a responsibility to ensure that our active duty military receives the best medical care we can provide while they are in the service of our country,” the defense secretary said.
“And as I've said, we also have a responsibility to ensure that this same quality health care is carried through to the end of service members’ active duty careers when their status changes from active duty to veteran,” he added.
“Our service members and veterans, and their families, expect and deserve a seamless system to administer the benefits they have earned,” Hagel said. “Secretary Shinseki and I will continue to work closely together, in partnership with Congress, to deliver on that promise.”