The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) will be adding staff to keep up with claims made by veterans through a recently passed bill to expand benefits for veterans exposed to toxins during their military service. The VA is set to start processing Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act claims on January 1, 2023.
The PACT Act was created with the goal of expanding access to care and benefits from the VA to the 3.5 million veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and were exposed to toxic burn pits. Since it was passed in August, there have been many concerns about how the VA will make a smooth transition to implement the law without disrupting the department’s other services.
Joshua Jacobs, senior advisor performing the delegable duties of the under secretary for benefits of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said that hiring was a key part of the VA’s plan to accommodate the expected increase in benefits claimed through the PACT Act, during a hearing held by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“We are focused on hiring efforts up and down the organization,” said Jacobs. “VBA has been preparing for PACT Act implementation since last year, hiring approximately 2,000 additional employees.”
Jacobs also said that the VBA plans to hire more people soon, thanks to the toxic exposure fund created in the PACT Act.
“In the next few months thanks to the toxic exposure fund we anticipate adding almost nineteen hundred more employees to our roles,” Jacobs said.
In order to deal with existing backlogs and to ramp up for when PACT Act benefits start being processed, claims processors are required to work mandatory overtime.
During the hearing, some lawmakers expressed concerns that the VA’s increased staff and mandatory overtime wouldn’t be enough to accommodate the expected rise in claims.
“Unfortunately, you know many of these new hires won’t be able to put a dent in backlog until they are fully trained,” said ranking member of the committee Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.). “Furthermore, mandatory overtime is costly and can lead to employee burnout.”
Jacobs said that the VA started training new employees on Monday.
The VA is working on creating a “train the trainer” model, where experts in their compensation service office train a handful of staff in 56 regional offices, and those staff members then assist in training new staff.
When asked how long mandatory overtime would be required for claims processors, Jacobs said the move would last until at least the end of this fiscal year.
“Right now, we’ve got it [mandatory overtime] through the fiscal year,” said Jacobs. “We realize it is not a sustainable model.”
In addition to hiring new staff, the VA also plans to use money from the toxic exposure fund created by the PACT Act to automate certain parts of the claims processing process to help claims processors make more timely decisions. However, automation is still in the pilot phase.
Despite still being in the early stages of development, Jacobs said the technology is promising.
“These tools have already reduced decision timeliness from several months to several days for the small number of claims that have leveraged this technology at one of our eight pilot sites,” said Jacobs.
Currently, automation efforts are dependent on four vendors, and VBA Deputy Under Secretary for Disability Assistance Robert T. Reynolds said the department plans to expand automation soon.
”We’ve [been] leveraging probably four vendors or so that are all working in concert together based on their specialty of what they bring,” Reynolds said. “This fiscal year, we will be putting more contracts out on the street for more IT capabilities.”
Jacobs said that the average time it takes the VA to process a benefits claim is 125 days. The VA currently categorizes any claim that takes more than 125 days to process as part of their backlog.
“Right now, we have average days pending is 106 days, and average days to complete is 125,” Jacobs said. “What the department has defined historically as the back log is 125 days to complete a claim, and once it’s over that time that is defined as being in the backlog.”
Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) expressed frustration with the VA not being able to process benefits claims faster.
“The men and women who we are seeking to serve through the money we allocated, appropriated to you all to get the job done, they had a sense of urgency in their lives,” said Bergman. “Is there a sense of urgency, can you move the ball faster here, because the clock ticks.”