Veterans know a Compensation & Pension (C&P) exam is a crucial step to be able to receive disability benefits. Most who have gone through the process would agree it’s never been very straightforward or fast tracked, but a huge backlog is making the wait for benefits much longer and more convoluted. The exam request backlog increased by over 200,000 during the two months in spring 2020 that the VA suspended exams due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the pandemic began, the VA was in the process of changing from in-house exams at VA hospitals and clinics to private contracted medical professionals. This was an attempt to increase the Veteran Benefits Administration’s (VBA) use of contracted medical professionals rather than depend solely on the Veteran Health Administration (VHA) centers. This change was already increasing the wait time before the pandemic hit.
According to David McLenachen, executive director of VA’s medical disability examination office, as of March 2021 there are 352,000 pending exams. VA officials have communicated their goal of clearing up this backlog by fall 2021, but many, including veteran advocates and lawmakers, are skeptical. The skepticism is in part due to the fact that the VA has not presented a clear written plan for how this will occur, and hundreds of thousands of vets are already affected.
Elizabeth Curda, a director with the Government Accountability Office, states, “The VA has not fully applied sound planning practices in transferring exams from the [Veterans Health Administration] to contractors. They’ve not identified goals, established a strategy, timelines or a risk assessment.” This translates into more errors on reports, meaning longer wait times and a higher potential for inaccurate ratings. The Government Accountability Office said in 2018 that the VA is not tracking the timeliness and quality of the private contractors.
It is quite clear that a more specific plan is needed. There is an even greater potential for increased pending exams this year, due in part to Congress’s new mandates in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that will approve benefits for more conditions related to Agent Orange. Representative Elaine Luria, D-VA, who is leader of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for the House, expressed concern that the VA made this decision quickly without input. “VA’s quiet decision to carry out a major reorganization of its C&P program without a plan to make key improvements, reduce backlog, or retain employees is unlikely to deliver the high-quality results we expect.”
The hope is that with pressure from the House, lawmakers, and veteran advocate groups, a more realistic and communicative plan will develop to more effectively get this backlog under control.