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Fri May 3, 2013
Winston-Salem Veterans Office Streamlines Operations, Battles More Delays
Last year, the Winston-Salem Veterans Affairs Regional office landed on a federal radar because of long delays and thousands of exposed claim folders. Now administrators say they’re changing how claims are processed. But there is still a wait.
North Carolina is home to about 800,000 veterans. All of them get their benefits through one place, the Winston-Salem Regional Veterans Affairs office. Director Cheryl Rawls says her staff of 376 works hard to handle a huge load. “On average we receive approximately 3,700 claims per month. But I currently have the capacity to do about 2,600 claims.” So in order to reduce the waiting period, Rawls sends claims to other regional offices outside of North Carolina that have more people to process claims. For the past two years, the Winston-Salem office has processed between 30,000 to 32,000 claims.
Rawls has worked with the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for 18 years, and has headed the regional offices in Little Rock, AR, and in Huntington, W. VA. She says the Huntington office also had delays in processing claims. In August 2012, a report by the Veterans Affairs Administration Inspector General cast a critical light on the Winston-Salem Regional office because of long delays and because thousands of claim folders were stored on top of file cabinets, at risk of fire or water damage and of files being misplaced. So to correct this, Rawls says the federal agency has granted her staff leeway to better manage claims. “They allowed us to retire files that had no claims, about 65,000 claims. They funded us to put together a high density filing cabinet system. We can move it to different areas and it allows us to store about 80,000 files in a safer manner,” says Rawls. “And they’ve also given us support from physicians for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week to help our raters whenever they needed help with exams.”
According to Rawls, a digital filing system would help alleviate what she calls a system burdened with too much paper. “Some of these veteran claims are five or six volumes thick and two feet in length. So we need to be able to process claims electronically. It will also enable us to serve veterans much faster and be able to keep track of the paper and not have to pay for storing these files and retiring these files.” Even retiring files is expensive. Rawls spent $250,000 in labor hours to retire 65,000 files.
Around the same time the IG report came out last August, Rawls, an Army veteran, took over the Winston-Salem office and inherited more than 10,000 unprocessed VA benefit claims; some have been waiting for more than 2 years. “That’s too long for veterans, we know that. And what we’re doing is those who’ve been waiting the longest time, get them the medical help as well as their benefits as quickly soon as possible,” explains Rawls. “Then transition to those who have been waiting a year or so. That’s how we’re going to move so we don’t have any claim that’s been waiting more than 125 days.”
One hundred and twenty-five days is how long the Department of Veterans Affairs says it should take to process a veteran’s benefit claim. But according to North Carolina’s Senator Kay Hagan, a number of the nation’s 56 VA regional offices have processing delays worse than that of Winston-Salem’s. In Houston, veterans wait 586 days, in Pittsburgh it’s 625 days and in Reno the average delay is 681 days. Senator Hagan sits on the Committee on Armed Services and calls these delays inexcusable. “The number of claims pending across the county has increased by 2000% at the same time the VA has gotten a 40% increase in their budget,” says Hagan. “And I really think the Congress has done what the VA has asked it to in terms of funding and more employees but it hasn’t solved the problem.” Monday, Senator Hagan and 66 U.S. Senators signed and sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to help the VA significantly reduce the delays nationwide. At the same time, both Senator Hagan and Senator Richard Burr have written to the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding the Winston-Salem Regional Office to get it help.
Other changes are happening at the Winston-Salem Regional Office. It's going digital. Since December 2012, Rawls says all veteran claims have been put into a digital system to process them faster. Rawls anticipates her office will be totally digital by 2015. They're also using a new program called Fully Developed Claims. It helps veterans get all the paperwork they need on the front end to expedite their claim. But even with these changes, Rawls admits her office is still struggling with a growing back log. In 2012, it took 331 days to process a claim. This year the delay has increased to 365 days. According to Rawls, a large part of these delays is connected to the U.S. now bringing home more troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. So in order to process veteran claims in 125 days or less, Rawls says she needs the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to approve hiring as many as 50 more people, as well as more overtime. “On average within a 90-day period we spend about $350,000 in overtime. If we went to a mandatory overtime environment and the funds were available, we could easily spend over a million dollars.” Rawls says she’s formally submitted these requests to her commanders in D.C. and is waiting for their decision.