How the VA’s Recent Modernization Efforts Impact Disability Claims

The United States has 16.2 million veterans, 4.9 million of whom live with a documented disability. For those whose disability stems from their military service, they may be eligible for compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but the road to accessing these benefits is hard and long. Over two-thirds of claims are denied upon first application, which initiates a complicated appeals process.

Recognizing this struggle, the VA has recently worked to modernize its resources, including extensive automation, but this has come with its own concerns.

Missing Claims Cause Serious Headaches for Veterans

According to the Military Times, VA representatives acknowledged that over 32,000 claims were lost due to a technical error, sometimes for years, leading to great frustration and anxiety about whether their claims would be approved. Several weeks later, it was announced that over 57,000 other applications suffered from technical issues, particularly those who were attempting to add or remove a dependent.

Errors in the system are not new: ever since the VA’s online portal went live in 2011, veterans have complained of long delays, unexpected decreases in their benefits, and an inability to access necessary forms because of software errors. In late July of 2023, a software glitch made it impossible to access paperwork for over 900 veterans shortly after a website update.

While these issues are frustrating because they imperil a veteran’s chances of thriving with a disability, they can also spell greater disasters: former service members may be unable to claim any benefits at all.

Technical Errors are Compounded by Worker Walkouts

To add to the trouble, the Department of Veterans Affairs is currently facing a staffing shortage thanks to a huge influx of new cases. NBC News reported in late September that over 2,000 workers have resigned since 2020, many of whom expressed serious discontent with their already high quotas and mandatory overtime. This was only worsened by the introduction of the PACT Act, which entitled thousands of veterans to benefits due to their exposure to toxic burn pits during their service.

Staffers expressed that the heavy workload led to multiple errors in claims processing, which may have wrongly denied veterans, in addition to a lengthy backlog that only grows each day. This, when compounded with a glitchy online portal and thousands of claims that are missing altogether, means that more veterans than ever are finding themselves without the support necessary to ensure their good health.

Time Is of the Essence When Making a Disability Claim

The longer a claim takes, the more likely it is to be denied. A delayed claim can lead to rejection because it is easier for the VA to dispute the connection between the current disability and their military service. Claims coaches, who provide helpful advice on filing a VA claim, stress the importance of applying as soon as possible, including adequate documentation from qualified medical personnel, as this vastly increases one’s chance of proving a causal relationship between their current condition and their service.

It’s unclear what the VA is doing to address this significant hurdle: how to approve a claim that may be months or even years old based on the contemporaneous medical evidence.

Disability benefits from the VA are based on a rating system that ranges from 0%, or total health, to 100%, or complete disability. Each time that a veteran’s claim comes up for reassessment, their rating may change, which would then necessitate an adjustment to their benefits.

As the veterans were waiting for their claim to be approved, their condition may have improved, which lowers their rating. It would then be difficult to prove how much they were entitled to during the time in which their claim was lost, which would complicate their ability to get back pay for the delay in processing. If, for example, a veteran would have been rated at 50% disability when they originally made their claim, but they have now moved down to 30% disability, it would be nearly impossible for the VA to determine when their benefits should have been reduced, leading to massive overpayments or underpayments.

Recent Budget Increases May Improve Disability Claims for Veterans

Fortunately, help may be on the way. Earlier this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs was approved for a significant budget increase, which would be used to cover a cost-of-living adjustment for those receiving benefits. It can also be used to modernize the system, hire more staff, and work through the backlog of cases still waiting for approval or denial.

The VA situation continues to evolve, but it’s hoped that greater funding will smooth the process for veterans seeking compensation for their sacrifices during wartime. In the meantime, veterans should remain active in their claims, following up as necessary and working with consultants who can help them avoid a lengthy appeal process.

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