In a letter sent Monday to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Maryland's senior senator called on the VA's Baltimore office to develop an action plan within 10 days to improve its "lackluster" approach to an initiative designed to speed up the time it takes to process disability claims.
Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski asked Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to provide a schedule for additional training between the Baltimore office leadership and service organizations, such as the American Legion, that work to expedite fully developed claims. The Baltimore office is among the slowest in the nation at processing claims and has the highest error rate, according to VA data.
Mikulski said she was "deeply disappointed and frustrated on behalf of Maryland veterans" after testimony that Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, gave to Congress last week.
Jones told a House subcommittee in written testimony that the Legion encountered an "obstructionist attitude" during a March visit to the Baltimore office. She also told the House members that the local staff was "aggressively excluding" Maryland veterans from the fully developed claims program.
Mikulski said her staff has heard from veterans' service organizations — which partner with the VA to prepare the claims for the program — that the Baltimore office has shown a "reluctance to work in cooperation" with the organizations. That, in turn, affects the organization's ability to provide a fully developed claim, Mikulski said.
"We cannot continue to allow the Baltimore office to perform at a level that puts our commitment to veterans in jeopardy," said Mikulski, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She is also a member of the Senate Military Family Caucus and Veterans Jobs Caucus.
The VA did not immediately respond to the senator's letter.
Mikulski also requested that the Baltimore office receive regular training from the Indianapolis office, which Jones highlighted in her testimony for its success with implementing the accelerated claims program.
"While offices such as Indianapolis have embraced the [fully developed claims] program as a means to expedite processing times and reduce errors, the leadership in the Baltimore office doesn't appear to be making the implementation of this tool a high priority," the senator wrote. "This is unacceptable and needs to be addressed immediately."
Jones said Monday in an interview that when the VA's regional offices show "buy in," the fully developed claims program works. She said in the months since the Legion conducted its performance review in Baltimore, the local office has made significant improvement toward the agencywide goal of processing all claims in 125 days with a 98 accuracy rate.
"The American Legion stands ready to assist them in any that we can," Jones said.
The error rate in Baltimore is 23.5 percent, according to the most recent data. More than 77 percent of cases are backlogged.
The VA's Baltimore office acknowledged that some cases were disqualified from the fully developed claims program, but said the cases in question were excluded due to missing documentation, the veteran's refusal or an administrative issue.