WASHINGTON, Nov. 8, 2013 - The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs reaffirmed their commitment to serve and care for the nation's military veterans in a joint message issued by Acting Undersecretary of Defense Jessica L. Wright and Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for Benefits Allison A. Hickey.
The message reads as follows:
"To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan" are the words President Lincoln used to affirm the obligation our government has to care for those who have worn the uniform and their families. Today, 148 years later, we continue the work that fulfills that promise. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DoD) are working closer today than at any point in history to ensure Servicemembers and their families have an understanding of the care and benefits they have earned before leaving military service, connect Veterans to those benefits, and deliver those benefits on time.
To accomplish this goal, the departments are providing a great deal of information through expanded briefings for every separating and retiring Servicemember that explain what VA benefits and services are available and the process for obtaining them. This is one place that offers a warm handoff to connect military personnel to the services available to them after separation.
One of the resources our Servicemembers learn about through this process -- and one example of our close collaboration over the years -- is the joint VA-DoD web portal, eBenefits. eBenefits is the core tool through which VA and DoD hope to foster life-long engagement with Servicemembers, Veterans, their families, and survivors.
The portal already has over 3.0 million users; a more than 900-percent increase since June 2011, and eBenefits participation is growing by the day. In 2010, DoD began to require all new Servicemembers to enroll in eBenefits upon entry into military service, and is ensuring that Servicemembers who came on active duty before 2010 are enrolled in eBenefits at the time of their release from active duty. Through its Benefits Assistance Service office, VA conducts outreach to educate Veterans, their families and survivors about the portal as well.
This innovative new tool currently provides users with over 50 self-service options and greater access to VA benefits and health information. eBenefits users can also file disability claims online, check the status of their disability claims and appeals, review VA payment history, download military service documents, and perform numerous other VA benefit actions. Future capabilities will "push" information to Servicemembers and Veterans regarding eligibility for specific benefits.
When Veterans and Servicemembers (once they become Veterans) file disability claims online using eBenefits, they can protect the date of their disability claim while gathering all records and documentation needed to support their claim.
Increased access to benefits and increased VA and DoD outreach have encouraged a record number of Veterans to file disability claims. This is good news. This administration is committed to reaching each and every Veteran and providing the benefits authorized by law. This increased outreach, in addition to decisions made to relax the evidentiary standards for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and presume service connection for a variety of medical conditions related to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, were the right choices for our Veterans -- but these too have led to an increased number of disability claims.
The increased demand for disability benefits unfortunately means Veterans today are waiting too long for resolution of their VA claims. VA processed more than a million claims each of the past three years, but for eight of the past 10 years, incoming claims have outpaced the number of VA claims decisions. As leaders and Veterans, we recognize that this is unacceptable, and we are working across the administration to fix it. Continued collaboration between VA and DoD is a critical piece of the plan to eliminate VA's backlog of benefits claims in 2015.
Our organizations have come together in a variety of meaningful ways to support this effort, including:
-- DoD has embedded a team of analysts within the Veterans Benefits Administration to assist in finding needed DoD medical evidence to complete pending claims.
-- VA and DoD reached an agreement that the military services will provide certified complete service treatment records for all separating or retiring Servicemembers, to include all separating or retiring National Guard and Reserve members. This action has potential to cut as much as 60-90 days from the "awaiting evidence" portion of claims processing, and reduce the time needed to make a claim "ready for decision" from 133 days currently to 73 days for departing Servicemembers.
-- DoD has accelerated the deployment of a scanning capability -- Healthcare Artifact and Image Management Solution (HAIMS) -- that will provide VA with electronic health records and other information useful for both healthcare providers and benefits claims processors.
-- VA and DoD are committed to creating a seamless health record integrating VA and DoD data, while modernizing the software supporting joint clinicians in the most efficient and effective way possible. Today, DoD and VA are already exchanging a significant amount of electronic information and are taking aggressive actions in 2013 to further expand these efforts. A key priority for both Departments is to standardize electronic health record data and make it immediately available for clinicians so they have the information they need to make informed medical decisions for our patients.
-- We collaborated on the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) since 2007 to ensure Servicemembers separating from the military for wounds, illness, or injuries have their own VA benefits process and do not become part of the backlog. DoD and VA have worked together to make disability evaluation seamless, simple, fast, and fair; on average, these wounded warriors receive their disability compensation within three months of leaving the military.
VA and DoD collaboration is only one example of the ways in which VA is working to eliminate the backlog in 2015. Through VA's transformation focused on people, process, and technology initiatives and VA's and DoD's efforts to support Servicemembers leaving the military, accessing Veterans benefits is becoming easier. We're serious about ensuring our Veterans understand the process and promptly receive the benefits they've earned and deserve.
We will never forget those for whom we work, and how much our warriors have given in defense of this great Nation. America's Servicemembers, Veterans, their families, and survivors deserve the very best care possible, and through our partnership, we will continue to fulfill the promise President Lincoln made 148 years ago.