The Department of Veterans Affairs has received nearly 113,000 new disability compensation claims for benefits created by the landmark toxic exposure law signed in August, pushing the VA to aggressively search for new hires to handle the influx of veterans into the system.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Tuesday that claims applications this month were 19% higher than October 2021, with the VA receiving 1,000 more claims a day than it usually does, requiring the department to take steps to recruit additional health and benefits personnel and offer incentives to retain current employees.
"With the promise of so many more veterans coming to VA for care under these provisions, we need aggressively to hire the people who will deliver the benefits," McDonough said during a press conference in Washington, D.C.
The department began accepting claims for illnesses deemed as linked to military service by the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act in August after the legislation was signed by President Joe Biden.
The illnesses include 23 respiratory illnesses and cancer tied to exposure to burn pits and other air pollution from the Persian Gulf War and post-9/11 conflicts; radiation-related illnesses for veterans who participated in certain cleanup operations in the 1960s and 1970s; and hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, or MGUS, for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
Under VA policy, veterans with one of these illnesses must submit evidence they served in an area and are eligible for benefits, but they don't have to send medical evidence that their condition was service-related, effectively speeding up processing times.
While the VA is accepting PACT Act-related claims now, it will not begin processing them until January -- a provision in the law that gave the department time to hire additional personnel to review the claims.
According to McDonough, the VA is now processing roughly 7,500 claims a day and has reached as many as 7,900 in a single day, a figure he described as a "new normal.”
The VA launched an effort earlier this year to hire 2,000 new claims processors, and it instituted an automated system to handle some claims to shorten the time it takes to provide a decision.
A pilot run of the VA Automated Benefits Delivery System, launched last year, reduced the amount of time by 98 days for hypertension claims. The VA plans to use the system to process claims for other common conditions in veterans such as asthma, sleep apnea and prostate cancer.
The number of backlogged claims, defined as those older than 125 days, at the VA is 144,021 -- more than twice the number at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but down from a recent high of more than 211,000. The 144,000 claims represent 22% of all the VA's current claims workload of 429,000, according to McDonough.
VA officials said they aim to continue chipping away at the backlog but expect the overall number of new claims to rise in the coming months, namely because of the PACT Act provisions.
"Backlog['s] coming down, thanks to [VA Office of Human Capital Services Executive Director Aaron Lee] and those great claims reviewers ... but overall inventory continuing to increase because, finally, those who have served throughout Southwest Asia since the first Gulf War are finally getting access to claims," McDonough said.
Veterans who file PACT Act-related claims before Aug. 9, 2023, will have their claims backdated to Aug. 10, 2022. Claims filed on or after Aug. 9, 2023, will be dated on the date of filing.
McDonough added that veterans who want more information on the PACT Act or to apply for disability benefits should go to the VA's website or call 1-800-MY-VA-411 (1-800-698-2411).
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.