Photo: Eric Shinseki, Secretary, Veterans Affairs/Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
In what's being touted as a major step to better serve Vietnam veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is planning to expedite the claims process for those with illnesses due to Agent Orange exposure.
The VA announced this week a new initiative to solicit private-sector input on a proposed fast-track claims process for "service-connected presumptive illnesses due to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War."
This is the VA's first stab at automating claims processing in its 80-year history, according to the agency. With about 200,000 veterans expected to file disability compensation claims over the next two years -- the VA officially linked three more illnesses to the herbicide in October 2009 -- the federal agency aims to shorten the time it takes to gather evidence to support the claims, which currently takes an average of more than three months.
"With the latest, fastest and most reliable technology, VA hopes to migrate the manual processing of these claims to an automated process that meets the needs of today's veterans in a more timely manner," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a press release.
In practical terms, Vietnam veterans who have one of the "presumed illnesses" -- the three additions include Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease and B-cell leukemia -- don't have to prove an association between their illness and military service, a VA press release said. "This 'presumption' makes it easier for Vietnam veterans to access disability compensation benefits."
Agent Orange is the code name for the herbicide used in Vietnam to defoliate trees and remove concealment for the enemy, which left a legacy of suffering, diseases and disability that continues well after the time of its original use.
The VA intends to publish a formal request on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site in spring 2010 so that the private sector may propose automated solutions for the parts of the claims process that take the longest amount of time, according to the VA announcement. Several phone calls to VA public affairs seeking specifics on the automation plan and the current system were not returned.
Too Little, Too Late?
For some Vietnam veterans, this plan and the addition of the three illnesses to the list of "presumptives" is too little, too late.
"In the case of the Vietnam vets, a common phrase used is, 'Sure, they will start paying for 'X' illness when we are all dead,'" Mary Lou McNeill, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 500 executive director, said in an e-mail. "And in many cases, that is true. For instance, with the new presumptive illnesses added, how many have died after 40-plus years or suffered from the effects without appropriate compensation all of this time?"
McNeill said the current claims process is lengthy, unpredictable and confusing, regardless of the illness for which veterans are seeking compensation. "At times, it appears there is no rhyme or reason as to how the adjudication of the claims is determined," she said. "Some veterans can wait for years to have their claim adjudicated or to receive a compensation rating comparable to their illness."
With a mixture of hope and skepticism, McNeill said she'll wait and see how the automated process works.
"This could mean a change in the lives of veterans who possibly cannot work because of their disabilities due to their service or earn enough income to survive at least comfortably," she said. "Unless the system actually does improve the timely processing of claims -- and all claims, not just the current new presumptives -- I can not foresee any change in their daily lives."