VA Operations During COVID-19: Interview with Director of VA Regional Office
CCK interviewed EJ McQuaid, the Director of the Providence, Rhode Island and Hartford, Connecticut Regional Offices, and his team about how Veterans Affairs Regional Offices are currently functioning and adjudicating claims during the COVID-19 pandemic. VA has issued special guidance to its staff regarding Compensation & Pension (C&P) exams, Acceptable Clinical Evidence (ACE) exams, evidence submission, and certain deadline extensions that are important for veterans to know about during this time.
How Are VA Regional Offices Functioning During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
At this point, all VA Regional Offices remain closed for walk-in traffic but are fully operational and functioning on a remote basis. Importantly, this also includes outpatient facilities, including walk-in medical centers that are located either at Regional Offices or military installations. However, there are multiple other initiatives to fill in those gaps in treatment and services. For Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment (VR&E), tele-counseling is fully operational and has proven to be very effective for veterans thus far.
Again, the most important takeaway is that Regional Offices remain closed for walk-ins but open for business. Regional Offices are still providing all of the business line functions that are usually provided in-person.
Status of Board Hearings at Regional Offices
With regard to Board hearings at the Regional Offices, many of these hearings have been postponed. However, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals is working diligently for other hearing alternatives, including audio- or video-based options. If hearings that cannot take place via teleconference they will remain postponed. As of now, there is no comprehensive update from VA regarding Board hearings.
Have Regional Offices Seen an Increase in VA Disability Claims or Other VA Services?
Director McQuaid confirmed that Regional Offices have not seen a drop-off in the number of claims and appeals being filed. Instead, Regional Office employees are seeing an increase in claims for entitlements and service. There has been a dramatic increase in the request for VR&E services in particular as many veterans are out of work right now due to lay-off, furloughs, and business shutdowns. VR&E presents a great alternative for veterans who have been affected with regard to employment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both loan guarantee and education-type (e.g., GI Bill) processing have increased as well. VA does not yet have firm updates on education benefits as many universities are still working out the details of reimbursement for the Spring 2020 semester and making decisions about the Fall semester.
Are the Regional Offices Planning to Reopen to Veteran Walk-Ins Soon?
The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) right now, much like all federal agencies and cabinet-level departments, is starting to have that discussion about what moving forward looks like. For example, VBA is considering how to start seeing walk-in traffic and veterans that need to visit Regional Offices in-person while respecting social distancing and the safety of both the workforce and veterans. Although this conversation is happening, there is still no set date as to when Regional Offices will transition back from telework.
However, in parts of the country that are not considered COVID-19 hotspots, Regional Offices may start opening for walk-in traffic much sooner. While this is not confirmed, it is an option that VBA is discussing.
Are Compensation & Pension (C&P) Exams Still Occurring?
In regard to C&P exams, neither the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) nor its contracted providers are completing any exams in-person. VHA is beginning the roll out of tele-examinations but this is yet to be seen in practice.
How VA Raters Are Adjudicating Claims Without C&P Exams: Acceptable Clinical Evidence (ACE) Exams
To adjust to these circumstances, VA adjudicators are trying to (1) rate veterans’ conditions based on the evidence of record; and (2) put an emphasis back on acceptable clinical evidence (ACE) exams, also referred to as records review examinations. Generally speaking, to qualify for an ACE exam, the examiner must determine that there is enough information without having to see the veteran in person. If they have further questions, they may just follow up by phone with the veteran.
C&P Exams are Most Impacted by COVID-19: Will VA Partially Rate Veterans’ Conditions Without Them?
C&P exams are the most impacted aspect of the claims process as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. With that being said, anything that can be partially rated based on the evidence of record, an ACE exam, or medical opinion, may be subject to compensation. VA adjudicators are trying to rate conditions partially, even without a C&P exam, in order to award as many benefits as possible to veterans. Conditions that require an in-person exam are being flashed in VA’s online database (i.e., VBMS) with a special code. Claims for those conditions are simply suspended in VBMS until veterans are able to attend those exams either in person or via telehealth, if applicable.
Similar to the Regional Offices, there may be more of a phased-approach when it comes to re-opening in-person exam options. As some areas are not as affected by COVID-19, they may be subject to earlier re-openings.
Will Veterans Be Penalized for Lack of Evidence or Deadlines Due to COVID-19?
Importantly, no veterans are going to be penalized for lack of evidence due to COVID-19. VA’s current regulations provide plausibility to timelines because there are various filing deadlines. If veterans can show good cause as to why they are submitting late evidence, claims, and appeals, VA may waive the timeframe requirements. In this case, veterans are going to need to write to VA and explain exactly what is going on. Veterans should tell VA why the timing requirements should be waived.
What Veterans Can do to Supplement Medical Evidence: DBQs
Recently, VA abruptly removed all of the public-facing versions of its Disability Benefits Questionnaire (DBQ) form so that the average person can no longer just download one of these forms and utilize it with their private practitioner. The VA examiners will still be utilizing them and still have access to them. However, veterans and their own private practitioners no longer will. However, Regional Offices have now received formal guidance from VA to accept DBQ evidence from veterans at this time. Veterans may have downloaded and completed the form with their provider prior to VA’s removal and so this evidence should be added to the record.
Submitting a DBQ or a report from a private physician may be one way to supplement the medical evidence of record and also streamline the claims process.
Records Requests Delays at VA
At this time, there are many appeals that are being delayed due to the fact that veterans and adjudicators are waiting for records. These are records that adjudicators would normally be obtaining through the Joint Records Research Center, which has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and does not have the ability to provide those services right now. VA is currently looking for creative solutions to this ongoing issue.
Mailing Issues at VA
At this time, all mail is going to VA’s centralized scanner. The biggest issue right now is the distribution of checks to Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and private attorneys. There have also been several situations in which private attorney checks and payments have been sent to VA’s centralized scanner. Regional Offices are working with headquarters and scanning vendors to get verification that payments are going to the proper recipients.
Deadlines That Have Been Extended: C&P Exams Rescheduled
Again, veterans are going to have their C&P exams rescheduled either in-person at a later date or via teleconference, if possible. VHA is going to continue to track all postponed examinations and ensure that proper steps are taken going forward. In the meantime, if veterans’ conditions can be rated without an exam, adjudicators will do so.
Regional Office Director’s Advice for Veterans
Director McQuaid emphasized that VBA is open for business and remains fully functional on a remote basis. As such, if claimants have any questions, they should contact their local Regional Office. In addition, claimants should not delay in filing for benefits whether it is for compensation, education, loan guarantee, etc. Regional Offices are very much open for business.
What to Expect in the Future
Veterans should be aware of future changes involving communication. Regional Offices are likely going to try to explore different technologies and ways to reach out during this time and moving forward. That is all yet to be determined, but Regional Offices are currently working on the early stages.
Appeal Extensions for Good Cause Due to COVID-19
Again, appeal extensions are not automatically awarded; however, there was a policy letter titled “Novel Corona, COVID, Claims and Appeals Processing Guide,” which became effective March 1, 2020. This allows any claimant to request an extension to submit evidence for good cause, and coronavirus has been extended as a good cause. The caveat is that veterans must request an extension thereby requiring action on the part of the claimant to submit the evidence that is needed.
Impact on Informal Conferences
There has not been an impact on informal conferences as Regional Offices continue to conduct those telephonically and via teleconference. Moreover, Regional Offices just received guidance that employees are now able to proceed with formal Decision Review Officer (DRO) hearings via teleconference as well.
How to File for an Extension on Your VA Claim for Good Cause Due to Coronavirus
Filing for an extension on your VA claim for good cause due to coronavirus can be as simple as writing a quick note or making a quick telephone call to the VA Call Centers requesting an extension. Employees would then document the request on a form in the online system.
Postmark Extension Guidelines Changes for VA Deadlines
VA is accepting the post office postmark as the date of veterans’ claims at this point. That is expected to continue for 60 days until COVID-19 has expired. If there is no postmark, VA will consider it to be received no later than February 29, 2020.
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