The Department of Veterans Affairs announced this week it will begin resuming in-person compensation and pension exams at 20 hospitals across the country.
The announcement came one day after lawmakers on Capitol Hill held a forum where advocates said veterans had been denied disability benefits because VA canceled their appointments during the pandemic.
VA said its contracted medical exam providers — which conducted about 61 percent of all VA disability exams as of last year — will immediately begin contacting veterans in those locations who have pending claims to schedule exam appointments, the department said.
“Resuming C&P exams allows VA to continue delivering the benefits our veterans have earned,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. “We’re keeping the safety of veterans and our medical providers as our highest priority and have put a robust set of measures in place to ensure medical providers can safely conduct these examinations.”
Those safety measures include COVID-19 screening for veterans and employees, physical distancing and “appropriate personal protective equipment, to include face coverings and gloves,” according to VA.
The locations set to begin resuming exams in coming weeks include:
- White River Junction, Vermont
- Syracuse, New York
- Erie, Pennsylvania
- Hershal “Woody” Williams, West Virginia
- Salem, Virginia:
- Ralph H. Johnson, South Carolina
- West Palm Beach, Florida
- James H. Quillen, Tennessee
- Louis Stokes Cleveland, Ohio
- Tomah, Wisconsin
- William S. Middleton Memorial, Wisconsin
- Kansas City, Missouri
- Central Arkansas
- South Texas
- Fort Harrison, Montana
- Puget Sound, Washington
- Boise, Idaho
- Southern Nevada
- Southern Arizona
- Fargo, North Dakota
More locations are expected to be added as pandemic conditions improve, VA said.
Veterans who live outside those areas will not have in-person exams yet, according to VA. Telehealth appointments “or the acceptable clinical evidence process, which includes a review of existing medical records to provide information needed to complete a claim” will be used “whenever possible,” the department said.
If veterans in the areas listed don’t feel comfortable receiving an in-person exam yet, VA said they can schedule an exam for a later date “without impact to their disability claim. No final action will be taken on a claim while a required in-person exam is pending,” the department said.
More than two dozen veterans previously told Connecting Vets their claims were denied, or partially denied, because VA or its contractors canceled their exams, or rescheduled them to later dates that fell beyond the window before their claims closed.
A backlog of exams is growing, and more than 230,000 exams have been delayed during the pandemic so far, advocates and lawmakers said during Wednesday’s forum. No one from VA was present for that forum. The backlog of claims stands at 114,000 and has nearly doubled in six months.
“The abrupt pause to the process has left some veterans to wonder when and how their claims will move forward,” Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said.
Beginning in early April, VA began canceling compensation and pension (C&P) exams or transitioning them to telehealth by phone or online.
But some veterans said they were denied benefits by VA, told they were no-shows for their exams and that without an exam, there was no evidence for their disability claims. This was despite VA’s own directive not to deny any claims because of the pandemic.
VA also recently removed the decades-long practice of providing a 48-hour review period for veteran service organizations to help veterans review their benefits decisions for accuracy before they’re finalized.
That backlog is further complicated this year, with the addition of Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans now allowed to file disability claims after decades. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie delayed VA’s processing of those claims until Jan. 1, 2020.
Luria said during the forum estimates show that without any changes, the number of pending benefits claims could reach 1 million by December.
“We should not allow a single veterans’ claim to fall between the cracks,” Luria said. “With veterans’ lives at stake, I think VA needs to clearly communicate.”