VA Aims to Reduce Compensation & Pension Exam Backlog
The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently scrambling to eliminate a massive backlog of requests for Compensation and Pension (C&P) examinations, which are a crucial part of the path to service connection and VA benefits for a majority of veterans. Recently, VA officials announced their intention to clear up this backlog by the fall of this year, but many remain skeptical as to the likelihood of this goal being met.
What Caused the C&P Exam Request Backlog?
The coronavirus pandemic is largely to blame for VA’s immense backlog of Compensation and Pension exams. The department suspended the exams in April 2020, as coronavirus cases spread across the United States and halted most in-person services. During this time, about 200,000 requests for examinations accumulated.
Prior to the pandemic, VA had been in the process of eliminating its in-house compensation and pension program and shifting the exams to private contractors. Specifically, it was expanding the Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA) use of contractors to perform disability medical exams instead of relying on Veterans Health Administration (VHA) medical centers. VA officials contacted staff in October 2020 to inform them that compensation and pension examinations were “no longer conducted” by the department. They directed staff to stop contacting VA hospitals and clinics about performing the examinations, as they would now be performed by privately contracted medical professionals.
How Can VA Resolve the C&P Exam Request Backlog Issue?
Earlier this month David McLenachen, executive director of VA’s medical disability examination office, testified about the issue before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He stated that, at that point, there were 352,000 pending exams. This means there are 212,000 more exams pending than was the norm in pre-pandemic times.
VA officials have promised to bring down the backlog to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this fiscal year, September 30, 2021. In order to achieve this goal, VA must complete about 40,000 exams each week to erase the backlog. Currently, however, they are only performing approximately 32,000 exams per week.
What Does This Mean for Veterans Seeking VA Benefits?
Compensation and Pension exams are a key part of the process for veterans to receive disability benefits. They are also a part of VA’s duty to assist veterans in obtaining evidence to support their disability claim.
In most cases, VA requires that veterans undergo some type of review by a medical professional to examine the etiology and/or severity of their condition(s) and determine eligibility for disability benefits. The recent change in procedure, coupled with the onset of COVID-19, has compounded the backlog issue, leaving hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting to receive their hard-earned VA benefits.
Many veteran advocacy groups are also concerned that the immediate backlog total has the potential to become an even greater problem. Currently, VA receives about 30,000 new cases each month. But with new changes mandated by Congress in the 2021 NDAA regarding presumptive conditions related to Agent Orange, as well as the possibility of future approval of other toxic exposure benefits issues (e.g., burn pit exposure), the number of pending claims could increase dramatically.
Veterans’ advocates agree that VA needs to further revise its processes, including developing better plans for dealing with private medical contractors. Although VA should continue to prioritize the reduction of the C&P exam request backlog, it must also remain aware of the potential for backlogs to develop in other areas and cause additional delays for veterans seeking disability compensation and other VA benefits.
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