Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) today sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Eric Shinseki expressing concern about the VA’s appeals system.
The text of the letter is below.
July 12, 2013
The Honorable Eric Shinseki
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
Thank you for your response to my April 12, 2013 letter requesting more information on backlog and management issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Since the VA initiated its Transformation Plan, the number of disability claims has been steadily dropping. Yet, with over 240,000 pending appeals nationally, this backlog remains a serious concern. At the Phoenix Regional Office alone, there are 5,000 pending appeals.
The backlog of appeals is a result of a duplicative and redundant system. When veterans appeal a rejection of benefits, the case goes through several layers of review. At one of the last stages of review, the case can be sent back down to the first stage again for further fact-finding. This multi-layer procedure inhibits timely resolution of claims. As veterans await the result of this complicated and lengthy process, they are often told only that their cases will be reviewed in an “expeditious manner.” Such a statement from the VA is not only vague and ambiguous, but also confusing to applicants who do not fully understand the open-ended nature of the protracted appeals process.
As we move forward, it is important that we improve not only the claims process, but the appeals system as well. Our veterans have sacrificed and have helped guarantee the freedom we are so fortunate to enjoy. The VA must continue to use its resources effectively to address both of these problems in a timely manner.
With this information in mind, please provide answers to the following questions:
1. I am very concerned that there are over 5,000 appeals at the Phoenix Regional Office and over 240,000 appeals nationally. To what extent is this number of pending appeals a result of chronic mismanagement at the VA? How does the VA intend to address this root cause?
2. What is the average time it takes for an appeal to be reviewed and addressed at the Phoenix Regional Office? Does the VA intend to reduce the level it takes for an appeal to be reviewed? If so, to what level? And how does the VA intend to do so?
3. If a claim is sent back to the Regional Office by the Board of Veterans Appeals, what is the average time it takes for the Regional Office to gather more information and send the claim back to the Board?
4. What is the total number of claims currently pending at the Board of Veterans Appeals? What is the average time it takes for a claim to be reviewed and addressed?
5. What is the average time it takes a Rating Veterans Service Representative (RVSR) to review a claim? How many RVSRs work at the Phoenix Regional Office?
6. What is the average time it takes a Decision Review Officer (DRO) to review a claim? How many DROs work at the Phoenix Regional Office?
7. To what extent would VA’s new policy of issuing “provisional denials” and imposing a 365-day waiting period actually clear out the Regional Office backlog, or merely delay the return of these cases for final determination? To what extent would the “provisional denials” reduce the average waiting time calculated by the VA, even though these “provisional denials” do not constitute an actual final decision regarding benefits and therefore the cases are not closed out?
Please provide your responses by August 12, 2013. If you or any of your staff have any questions, please contact Elizabeth Lopez at 202-224-XXXX. Thank you for your continued cooperation and attention to this matter.
Ranking Minority Member
Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations