WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is processing applications at the fastest rate in its history, hoping to avoid a large backlog as hundreds of thousands of veterans apply for health care and benefits under of the landmark Toxic Substances Exposure Act passed earlier this year.
The day after President Joe Biden signed the bill in August, veterans set an all-time record for benefits filed online and more than 136,000 applied for benefits under the Exposure Act to toxic substances in mid-November. The VA expects the number of veterans and surviving family members who apply to grow to more than 700,000 in the coming months.
To deal with the surge in claims, VA is hiring more employees to provide health care and process claims, but officials expect the backlog to increase in the near term.
Joshua Jacobs, who performs the delegated duties of the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, said in mid-November that the VA was “in a better position to handle this increased workload” than it expected. t was in 2013, when the agency was widely chastised for letting the backlog swell to over 600,000.
“For members who have followed the backlog of claims for so long, you might be wondering, ‘Are we about to watch the same story unfold here today? ‘” he told members of the US Senate during a hearing. “I am happy to say that today we are in a better position to deal with this increased workload.”
Jacobs said the VA moving to a paperless system and hiring thousands more people will help avoid a large backlog in the coming months as hundreds of thousands of veterans likely seek health care and benefits that are part of the Toxic Exposure Act, known as the PACT Act.
“As we continue to encourage more veterans and survivors to apply for their benefits under the PACT Act, we expect the inventory and backlog to increase in the near term,” he said. he said during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee oversight hearing.
Jacobs noted that the VA had reduced the total backlog to its lowest level in years, below 150,000 claims as of this month. He also said the VA encourages veterans and eligible surviving family members of deceased veterans now covered by the Toxic Exposure Act to apply by Aug. 10, 2023, on the VA’s website or from an accredited representative of a veterans service organization to obtain the earliest possible effective date.
The VA has set up a website at va.gov/pact as well as a phone number, 800-698-2411, for veterans to call for more information or to file a claim.
“There are going to be failures”
Democratic Montana Senator Jon Tester, chairman of the committee, said everyone expects “there will be hiccups” in implementing the sweeping law that is the biggest health care expansion. health and benefits history of the VA.
“Veterans who previously filed claims will now hear a lot more about their siblings joining them,” Tester said. “But the VA needs to make sure each of them gets the right decision as quickly as possible.”
As more and more new faces appear in hospital waiting rooms, Tester said, “VA needs to make sure they get the quality care they deserve.” He also noted that while the panel will be working on new legislation during the next Congress, the committee will primarily focus on oversight of the VA.
Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the committee’s top Republican, said his top priority for the panel was the “proper and sufficient implementation of legislation” passed by Congress, including the PACT Act.
Shereef Elnahal, undersecretary of health, said the VA is working to “contact all veterans who may be eligible for new benefits and care to ensure they are aware” of what is being done. the law on exposure to toxic substances and how to apply for benefits.
Department heads are seeking to increase staff numbers to manage the influx of veterans and to launch “groundbreaking new research into toxic exposure,” Elnahal said.
The department is contacting more than 300,000 veterans who have put information into the Burning Hearth Registry and plans to hold more than 80 events the week of Dec. 10 to tell veterans about the new law.
They have started standard toxic exposure screening for veterans visiting primary care clinics and in “just over a week, this clinical screening has already reached 166,000 veterans with over 37% reporting exposures.” “, Elnahal told the panel.
The VA, Elnahal said, is working on a plan to boost hiring in rural areas, though he told the committee it might be easier if Congress implements a section of the president’s budget request. which lifts the $400,000 cap on salaries.
“In order to recruit the right people – on the side of doctors, dentists and podiatrists – it becomes much more difficult, especially in rural areas, as wages increase and the health labor market increases. becomes more difficult,” he said. “And we would also be able to pay in more innovative ways, to encourage good behavior among those clinicians.”
More awareness needed
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America believe that the very beginning of the implementation has gone well so far.
But the organization, which represents more than 425,000 members, says the VA and the US Department of Defense need to do much more to reach all eligible veterans.
“IAVA played a leadership role with our VSO partners in pushing through this landmark legislation, so we are greatly invested in its success,” IAVA Executive Vice President for Government Relations Tom Porter said in a statement. a written statement.
“We are encouraged by the energy in the initial rollout of the new law by Secretary VA McDonough and his team, as well as the commitment to oversight by the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees,” he said. -he declares. “All parties, including the VSOs, should do everything possible to inform veterans of their new benefits.”
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