Status check: Senate committee assesses VA's improvement efforts

Wednesday, March 13, 2013: The Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs takes a close look at the Department of Veterans' Affairs claims process, in an effort to assess the department's latest efforts at improving efficiency, accuracy and access to health care resources.

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  1. Editor's note: This hearing took place in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., and began at 10 a.m. Eastern. Public Insight Network journalists Meg Martin and Anna Weggel covered it from their newsroom in Minnesota via live video. All time stamps are Central Daylight Time.
  2. 9:10 a.m. (CDT) Committee chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont opened the hearing by laying out some of the challenges the VA has faced along with its increasing volume of claims filed "Seventy percent of the compensation ... inventory have been pending for over 125 days. Further, the accuracy rate... is significantly lower than what must be accomplished." 

    He added: "Despite, I believe, a popular misconception, as I understand it, the VA today is processing far more claims than ever before. ... Further, it is generally believed that the VA did exactly the right thing in making certain that Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange ... get the benefits that they were entitled to because of that exposure and because of those illnesses." 

  3. The committee is live-streaming a video of this hearing on the homepage of its website. (It's not embeddable -- but will be archived on the committee's video page:  http://www.veterans.senate.gov/videos.cfm .)
  4. Side note: IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: iava.org/), an organization led by Paul Rieckhoff and comprised primarily of young, recent veterans, has begun a petition campaign to raise further awareness about the backlog among lawmakers and the president.
  5. 9:20 a.m. Retired Brig. Gen. Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, begins her testimony: "2013 is the year of transformation and change for us." 
  6. Note: Leo Shane III covers Capitol Hill and veterans' affairs for Stars and Stripes (stripes.com/)
  7. 9:30 a.m.: Hickey said student claims used to take on average 69 days to be processed, but once the claims switched from paper-based to electronic, the processing time was cut in half.
  8. 9:35 a.m. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina challenges the notion that the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs data systems will work in tandem. A critical question to be raised later, he says.
  9. 9:43 a.m. Gen. Hickey says the Department of Defense is now working closely with the VA to share all medical records of separating service members, in an effort to make the claims process faster and more accurate. She adds that the department is also working with VA to work on the oldest unfulfilled claims.
  10. If you are a veteran that has filed a disability claim (or if you are close with someone that has), please take a few minutes to review our questions below and share your experiences:
  11. Another hearing, happening now:
  12. 9:50 a.m.: Gen. Hickey says every claim is now processed electronically, although medical records are still transferred through paper but the intention is for them to be done electronically. Read the full report on the Veterans Benefit Association's "Review of Transition to a Paperless Claims 
    Processing Environment":  http://www.va.gov/oig/pubs/VAOIG-11-04376-81.pdf  
  13. 9:55 a.m. "You're putting a lot of faith in DoD, that still can't do an audit of their own functions," Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska) questions the VA's methodology of turning paper documents into digital ones. This, after Gen. Hickey suggested that, by December 2013, she expects a new system (called HAIMS) to allow for direct file and claims uploads to the digital Veterans Benefits Management System. 
  14. >>Backgrounder on HAIMS:
  15. >> Related story: “I’m in the dark,” he says. “I just have no idea when I’m going to hear anything.” Hear from veterans themselves who faced months of uncertainty on disability claims:
  16. 10 a.m. Sen. Jerry Moran, to Gen. Hickey: "What is the process you have for [helping] a veteran who is in a dire circumstance?"
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