Friday, June 11, 2010

New VA Benefits Claim Form: Just Six Pages

Say good-bye to the 26-page-long benefits claims form from hell.
Is this the beginning of a veteran-friendly U.S. Dept of Veterans Affairs? Are they listening? I see some good signs.

After years of complaints from veterans about having to fill out a 26-page-long benefits claims form for the Veterans Affairs Department, the Office of Management and Budget has approved VA’s new six-page form.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have progressed, the 26-page application became particularly troublesome for veterans dealing with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, both of which can cause short-term memory loss and other cognitive issues.

“It’s a good thing and we’re pleased,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. “In our view, the current form is burdensome. It’s too long.”

VA spokesman Steve Westerfeld confirmed in a voicemail that VA had shortened VA Form 21-526, as well as creating a new “express claim” form, or 21-526EZ, which is six pages long and requires that the veteran provide his own medical and military records, rather than waiting for VA to gather them.

The EZ form comes as a result of a pilot program mandated by the Veterans’ Benefit Improvement Act of 2008. That pilot program will now be expanded to include everyone, according to VA’s May Compensation & Pension Service Bulletin.

Sullivan, along with other veterans’ service groups and several members of congress, have pushed for the shorter form.

Tom Staudter, spokesman for Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., said Hall had talked with several veterans who said they couldn’t fill out the lengthy form, and therefore never received any disability compensation. Hall is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on disability affairs and memorial assistance.

When Hall met with veterans again last week and told them about the new six-page form, “they were absolutely pleased to hear it’s on the horizon,” Staudter said.

Sullivan said that, by reducing the form from 26 pages to 6 pages, VA could kill about 20 million pages of paperwork, per the 1 million claims expected this year.

“Filing a 26-page disability claim is undoubtedly a daunting process for veterans, particularly those who have traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Amy Fairweather, policy director for Swords to Plowshares, an organization that provides counseling, case management, and job training to veterans in San Francisco, and which has argued for a shorter form. “The change to a simpler six-page application will certainly break down barriers not only for veterans, but also for advocates and VA staff.”

Several other veterans service groups, such as Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion, have also argued for the shorter forms during congressional hearings.

Sullivan said the 26-page form creates a barrier for the veterans that, in turn, creates an adversarial atmosphere. For example, the old form asks a veteran to detail his or her military service, which seems like finding a lot of details that are already readily available to VA.

“The guys say, ‘Doesn’t the government know when I served?’” Sullivan said.

VA officials had not yet returned a call for details about the new form, such as when it will be implemented.

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