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Changes at VA do not bode well for claims handling

All the media and congressional attention drawn to the VA lately as a result of the medical center scandal, beginning with Phoenix and spreading, as well as the resignation of long-time Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, raise the reasonable question of what effect all of this will likely have on claims processing at the agency. Unfortunately, the indications are not very positive.

In the past, when Congress has focused attention on the agency, it has resulted in VA adopting programs to expedite claims backlog clearance. The problem with these programs is that they usually involve short-term actions, i.e. incentives for raters to clear cases by some arbitrary deadline, in exchange for bonuses, etc. The shortest path to getting a claim off of one’s desk is to deny it. That requires merely drafting some language for a rating decision, compared with the significantly greater effort required to make sure all evidence has been gathered and notices issued under the duty to assist, and then to adjudicate the claim carefully. When the pressure is on VA employees to clear away claims, the focus is generally on speed, not accuracy.

Congress has at least once exerted a positive effect on the agency, when it created judicial review and thus eliminated the isolation in which VA had so long adjudicated claims as it saw fit. The system is far from perfect, but it is a substantial improvement over the old system, in which veterans had no recourse when they were denied except to start all over again. But, alas, the energy in Congress currently seems to be more for making it appear that it is doing something rather than any true reform. The forcing of Gen. Shinseki’s resignation simply created a power vacuum that will likely result in less permanent improvement than more.