[Editor's note: Read the first part of this series here]
"That's the real legal part of the job: deciding is this disability related to service or and what is the current level of disability?"
Houston's VA Director Pritz Navaratnasingam is talking about the fourth step in the claims process. If the VA decides the injury is service-connected, then they must give a disability percentage out of a hundred. This translates directly into dollar amounts so that the percentage is really important, says Vincent Morrison a Veteran's Service Officer here in Houston.
"It can go from $129 a month to, it could be $3000 on a 100 percent service-connected."
But in Morrison's experience sometimes that part can be confusing.
"And that's a lot thing that the veteran misses. 'Zero percent hearing loss, they denied my claim?' I said, 'No, they service- connected it but it's at zero percent. It's not money but they said, 'Yes, this incident did happen.'"
And then if a veteran wants to appeal that rating.
"Board of Veterans' Appeals. Oh that's a two-year wait."
But the Houston VA office has been working to make changes to a process that wasn't created to deal with the large volume of claims they've been receiving.
"With the most recent discharged group of veterans, we're seeing anywhere from 12 to 15 issues being the norm."
That's Emile Dufrene Service Center Manager with the Houston VA Office. Last November, he oversaw the implementation of a new system designed to process claims faster.
"If somebody comes in with one or two issue case — what we call our express lane — think of that in terms of a grocery store. If you have one or two items, you get faster service than someone who has two grocery carts full of goods."
Which means forms filled out correctly and all the supporting medical evidence. With this method, they managed to get the process timing down to an hour and a half but only six claims so far have been able to be processed this way. They have further segmented the process though.
"The second type of lane we have is the special operations lane and that is: traumatic brain injury, ALS cases/Lou Gehrig's Disease, military sexual trauma. We have specialists who concentrate on only working those types of claims. All the rest fall into our core processing."
Houston was also one of the first offices nationwide to move to the new electronic paperless Veterans Benefits Management System. The Department of Defense is aiming to be entirely paperless by October of this year. And 2015 is the year when Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki says we'll have our claims backlog under control. In the meantime, to help iron out the kinks, Veterans Service Officer Vincent Morrison has a suggestion.
"For the VA to use more common sense: grant, deny if you must. It's a grantable disability; I don't care if its zero, grant it."