Hartford VA office handles claims from veterans in Indiana

At the Hartford Regional Office for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, claims processors are working on disability compensation claims from veterans in Indiana.

Hartford has long been considered one of the VA’s “premier offices,” Allison A. Hickey, the VA’s under secretary for benefits, said Thursday during a visit to the Hartford VA Regional Office in Newington. In February, the VA sent Hartford 1,900 claims from the Indianapolis office, where the backlog of claims had grown.

The practice, known as brokering, is one of the VA’s strategies for meeting its goal of eliminating the backlog of claims in 2015, so no claim will take longer than 125 days and all will be processed with 98 percent accuracy. Brokering is now easier to do, Hickey said, because the files can be sent electronically between offices using the VA’s new digital processing system, instead of shipping them in boxes. 

The VA has 589,000 pending claims nationwide, of which 312,000 are older than 125 days. Last year, there were 884,000 claims, of which 611,000 were older than 125 days.   

“Our mission is to take care of the nation’s veterans, and we will do that with the resources we have across the nation,” said Hickey, referring to Hartford as a leader in helping the VA achieve its goal. Hartford has been considered a “brokering office” for years.

In Lincoln, Neb., claims processors are working on claims from California. Tha has increased the wait time for Nebraska’s own veterans by 4.7 days, Hickey said. Hickey said she thinks veterans are willing to wait a little longer for a decision from the VA, if it means saving a fellow veteran from waiting several extra months.

The average number of days Connecticut veterans are waiting for a pending claim is 121.9, as of April 30. Before the office received the 1,900 claims from Indianapolis, the average number of days a Connecticut veteran waited was higher, at 144, in January, according to the Hartford office.

The claims processors in Hartford made a record number of decisions in January, February and March. Of the 1,900 claims, about 750 have been completed and the goal is to finish the rest by the end of June.

Will Streitberger, the new director of the Hartford office, said the regional offices need to collaborate so “no one in California, no one in Illinois, waits longer.”

“It’s an investment in our future,” he said.

However, Patricia Dumin, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Connecticut Chapter 120, and John Cutler, the chapter’s chief service representative who helps veterans with VA claims, say they worry about the wait times for Connecticut veterans now that the Hartford office is busier.

“They penalize the offices that are doing well by sending them claims from offices that are not doing well, which means they put ours on hold, on the back burner, and work on the ones that are older from the other places,” Dumin said.

Dumin said she thinks the Hartford office should help other offices, but sparingly. For instance, she said, she would not want the claim for her hearing aids to be processed while a veteran who is dying or who was severely injured in Iraq or Afghanistan is still waiting.

Cutler said he is working with veterans whose claims are now six months and older, which should have been resolved months ago. 

“I feel bad for those other veterans but if it’s going to affect my Connecticut veterans, I feel bad too,” he said.

Streitberger said the Hartford office will soon pilot a program where claims processors can work from home, which could help further improve productivity. 

The Hartford office completed 6,052 claims in fiscal year 2012, 7,416 in Fiscal 2013 and 5,571 so far this fiscal year. At this point last year, from October through April, 3,609 claims were completed.

Veterans were waiting 54 days longer, an average of 176.2 days, in January 2012 than they are today. The backlog of the older Connecticut claims decreased from 2,938 in January 2012 to 1,195 in April. Eighty-three employees process claims and Streitberger said he has been authorized to hire up to 92.

“We’re very, very proud and we want to remain very, very relevant and on the front burner of the transformation,” Streitberger said. “We’re working tirelessly in Hartford to be that station, and be a vibrant and relevant workforce in the VA.”

Hickey said she is going to rely more on Hartford and on all of the VA’s employees across the nation. The backlog will be gone in 2015, she added. On Thursday, the VA began an outreach effort to encourage veterans to file their claims electronically. 

“We are making progress but we have more work to do,” she said. “We will not rest until we take care of every veteran waiting for a good claims decision from us.”

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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