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By Richard Barid and Michael Smith

Oct. 21, 2013 – Disabled veterans, who for years have struggled to obtain benefits from an overwhelmed Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), may finally see an end to the backlog that has frustrated so many.

The recently passed bipartisan spending bill earmarks an extra $294 million through Jan. 15 to help the VA end the backlog by 2015. The bill does not specify how the VA must use the money, but previously the VA used such funding to pay for overtime for its claims processors.

A backlogged claim is defined as any application that takes more than 125 days to process. For a number of reasons the amount of backlogged claims had grown from 85,000 in 2009 to 608,000 in March of this year.

In just the last six months a new digital application process, extensive outreach and education initiatives and VA employee overtime had cut the backlog by a third.

To understand how we got to this point, here's a little history courtesy of a recent editorial in Time Magazine written by former VA employee Brandon Friedman.

When VA Secretary Eric Shinseki took office in early 2009 he inherited a paper mountain of 391,127 separate disability claims. At the time, backlogged claims were defined as pending for 180 or more days.

Thinking that six months was too long to wait, Shinseki in October 2009 changed the backlog definition to 125 days, which effectively doubled the number of backlogged claims. Then the backlog doubled again when the VA decided in late 2010 to expand coverage to victims of Agent Orange and combat PTSD.

The total inventory for all claims peaked at 883,000 in July 2012. The Time editorial attributes much of this increase to the aging and increasing medical needs of Vietnam veterans, who account for about 37 percent of all claims, the poor economy and new outreach efforts as well as the above described policy changes.

Although several politicians and veterans organizations this summer proposed various theories on how to combat the problem, the real solution seems to have come from automating the paper-bound system.

The Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), which was conceived in January 2010, was fully operational by December 2012. Since implementing the Web-based system this year, both total pending claims and total backlogged claims have steadily fallen. In September, the number of backlogged claims was down about 30 percent since March, according to VA statistics.

The VBMS encourages those filing claims to gather as much documentation on their own as they can resulting in what the VA calls a Fully Developed Claim (FDC). The VA can process those claims faster because there's less leg work for them to do.

Still, it's not a perfect system. We have seen FDCs go from a 30-day turnaround to a more than 10-month wait this year, perhaps because of the increase in FDC filings. Tom Murphy, director of the compensation service at the Veterans Benefits Administration, noted that the VA received more than 148,000 FDCs this year in a recent congressional testimony. Murphy said that FDCs are processed in less than half the time of other claims at an average of 123 days.

Also, of note is that the Atlanta Regional Office has the third-highest number of claims after Florida and North Carolina. Right now, two-thirds of the Atlanta office's 33,627 claims are backlogged, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, with an average wait time of 192 days.

With a new digital system in place and extra funding, the VA soon may be able to work its way out of the backlog for the first time in years. If your disability claim has been rejected, now may be the best time to contact an accredited VA attorney for help.

Richard Barid and Michael Smith are co-founders of Savannah-based Smith Barid LLC, which specializes in estate planning and special needs planning. They are both accredited VA attorneys with extensive experience arbitrating denied pension claims. They can be reached at 912-352-3999 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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