WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee has ordered congressional staff to accompany outside reviewers checking on how well the Department of Veterans Affairs processes disability claims, after complaints that the VA’s Seattle regional office hindered the reviewers’ work in January.
The Feb. 14 order by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., is the first time Congress will intervene in visits made by representatives of the American Legion, a nonprofit veterans organization.
Though the Legion has been making routine visits to VA offices nationwide for 15 years, its quality reviews are not required under any legal or congressional authority.
For the prearranged visits, Legion representatives ask for a random sampling of recently processed disability claims for review with VA officials. They also meet confidentially with nonmanagement staff to discuss any issues and concerns.
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The Legion currently is assisting 720,000 veterans across the nation in filing their claims, sometimes acting with the power of attorney. During their site visits, Legion representatives review only cases where they hold power of attorney for the veteran.
The VA is trying to whittle a huge backlog of disability claims that have grown more complex, with each claim on average containing more than seven medical issues.
During a four-day visit to Seattle that began Jan. 21, however, Legion representatives say they were prevented from interviewing rank-and-file personnel. That lack of access was unprecedented and hampered the group’s ability to thoroughly examine the VA’s ruling on the claims, said Zachary Hearn, American Legion’s deputy director for claims.
Hearn was one of four Legion representatives on the Seattle trip. They met with Patrick Prieb, director of the VA’s Seattle regional office, as well as others.
“It wasn’t like we weren’t able to do anything, but we weren’t able to do as much as we typically could have done,” Hearn said.
Hearn declined to be more specific, saying the Legion depends on cooperation from the VA to advocate for veterans.
According to emails released by a House Veterans Affairs Committee staffer, two weeks before the Seattle review a top VA official in Washington, D.C., objected to the timing of the visit, called a Regional Office Action Review (ROAR).
Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, replied to a group notice sent by Hearn to Prieb and others announcing the Legion’s upcoming site review.
“I can’t support this trips (sic) for now,” Hickey wrote.
The Legion’s Hearn said Hickey subsequently explained the Seattle regional staff needed to focus on its job and that other outside representatives, presumably congressional staff, were also on site at the time of the Legion’s January visit.
In a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Miller accused Hickey of hindering “the Legion’s ability to fruitfully conduct its visit” and of “deliberate and retaliatory” actions against external reviews.
Miller’s committee staff will attend and report back on the Legion’s upcoming ROAR trips in North Carolina and New York.
Genevieve Billia, a VA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., declined to answer specific questions about Hickey’s decision.
The “VA is reviewing the issues raised in Chairman Miller’s letter related to the American Legion, and will respond to his office,” she said by email.
Billia said the VA will continue working with the American Legion and other veterans organizations to carry out its plan to whittle down the backlog of 400,000 compensation claims. That’s about a one-third drop in unprocessed claims from March 2013.
“No veteran should have to wait for benefits they’ve earned and deserve. We are working to fix this decades-old problem and end the backlog in 2015,” Billia said.
The VA is switching from paper disability claims to an all-digital claims system.
That has helped the reduce error rates and process a record 1 million claims annually for the past four years.
Veterans advocacy groups, however, have questioned the VA’s assessment about the accuracy of its benefits claims.
They also are concerned about proposed rule changes on claims forms they believe could penalize veterans without access to the Internet.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KyungMSong