WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Tom Rice (SC-07), along with 62 members of Congress, sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald urging him to improve the agency’s claims process by granting congressional constituent service representatives read-only access of veterans’ electronic claim files. Currently, only VA employees and certified Veteran Services Officers can access claim files.
“The VA claims backlog is one of the agency’s eyesores,” said Congressman Rice. “When our veterans cannot get a claim update or an answer from the VA, they turn to one of our offices for help but our hands are tied. If our district staff could view a veteran’s claim and provide them with an update on the claim status, VA employees could dedicate more of their time to reducing the claims backlog. Overall, this improvement to the claims process would be a win for everyone—veterans, VA staff, and taxpayers.”
According to the VA ASPIRE Dashboard, it takes an average of 212 days – or seven and a half months—for the Columbia VA regional office to complete a disability rating claim. In the letter to Sec. McDonald, Congressman Rice and his colleagues request read-only access for congressional constituent services representatives who are acting as a “middle man” between the VA and veterans. Granting congressional staff this access will get veterans faster responses and reduce the number of congressional inquiries to the VA.
“The VFW believes that allowing congressional caseworkers to view the electronic claim files of veterans who have requested their assistance will provide swifter service for veterans and allow VA regional office employees more time to do their jobs,” said Ray Kelley, VFW National Legislative Director.
The complete text of the letter is available below:
Dear Secretary McDonald,
Over the past year, Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have fostered a healthier, stronger relationship by working together to tackle issues that prevented our veterans from receiving the healthcare they have earned and were promised by the nation they defended. Through bipartisan congressional action such as the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, and under your guidance, the VA has begun to make tremendous progress in providing veterans access to services provided by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and holding VHA officials accountable. It is in this same spirit of commitment and cooperation that we ask for your assistance in changing VA policy regarding constituent advocate access to the veterans’ electronic claims files - CITRIX, MAP-D, SHARE, VBMS, VACOLS, and Virtual VA.
As the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) continues to tackle the enormous claims backlog, we ask that you permit certified, congressional constituent advocates to have read-only access to view the claims status via the electronic claims files. Only VA staff and certified Veterans Service Officers currently have permission to access these files. In order for our office to provide adequate assistance to our veterans, we require regular updates on the status of their claim. Under current policy, advocates must contact regional offices to obtain this information.
When advocates have to play the role of middle man, it often results in delayed responses, adding to the frustrations of veterans who have already had to endure excessive wait times for the VA’s decision regarding their claim. The necessity of contacting regional offices also interferes with the ability of the VA to best utilize its personnel to reduce the claims backlog and make decisions in a more timely fashion. Permitting read-only access will reduce the volume of calls to regional office by congressional offices and allow VA staff to do their jobs in an expeditious manner. Together, our offices and the VA can eliminate congressional requests that often detract from the VA’s core mission – helping veterans.
While we believe it is vital to allow congressional constituent advocates to have read-only access to veterans claims statuses, we also believe it is equally vital that the security and privacy of veterans’ information be protected. We fully believe all advocates should undergo the same training as VSOs and the costs associated with the training should be absorbed by the congressional office seeking read-only access. Additionally, congressional offices operate on secure networks, similar to what VSOs currently operate on and constituent advocates must already obtain a privacy release form prior to opening a case on the behalf of the veteran.
Under your leadership, the nation has witnessed marked improvement in the lives of the thousands of veterans the VA provides services for. We sincerely hope you will strongly consider our request and work with Congress to continue to improve veterans’ services and eliminate the claims backlog. If you have any follow-up questions, concerns, or comments, please feel free to contact our offices directly. Thank you for your service, and we look forward to working with you.