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VA must improve disability claims processing, advocacy group says

WASHINGTON – Despite a significant decrease in the backlog of veteran disability claims last year, a report released by an advocacy group says that without a better strategy, the Department of Veterans Affairs may struggle to keep up with future claims.

The report from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, released Monday, warned that even as recent initiatives helped the VA cut its backlog by 37 percent from March to December 2013, the department’s claims process lacks both the accountability and the transparency necessary for the coming decades.

“We still have a new generation of veterans coming home now, so we don’t want to see this issue fade away,” said Jacqueline Maffucci, the group’s research director and author of the report.

The VA has a goal of eliminating the backlog of disability claims pending for more than 125 days by 2015; the backlog has hovered at about 400,000 since November.

However, the deadline to end the backlog has resulted in pressure on disability claims processing, where the emphasis is more on the quantity of claims processed rather than on their accuracy, the report said.

Mistakes in the claims process also lead to an increase in appeals, which take an average of four years to reach a final decision, according to the report. In December 2013, more than 265,000 appeals were awaiting a decision.

The report recommended the standardization of VA claims forms to speed up processing, as well as the creation of an electronic health record system that can be operated by both the VA and the Department of Defense.

In a statement, the VA said it was working hard on addressing the issues raised in the report. It said many of the recommendations in the report are already being addressed.