“This is just the evolution of the process,” said Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence in an interview with Military Times last week. “Right now, contractors are already doing the bulk of them. We think the value of having contractors available to do them is flexibility and the ability to surge.”
Military Times’ recent article entitled “VA moving ahead with plans to outsource all compensation and pension exams” explains that the compensation and pension exams are a vital component of the process for veterans to receive disability benefits. In most instances prior to payouts, the VA requires some type of review by a medical expert to confirm a veteran’s injuries and the level of its impact.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 25% of those exams were performed at VA medical centers or health clinics. When many of those locations were partially shuttered due to virus prevention efforts, the backlog of C&P exams grew to more than 350,000. The department’s backlog of disability benefits cases has risen by about 200,000 in recent months.
Lawrence said as of November 1, the Veterans Benefits Administration has eliminated most of that backlog and now is operating at pre-pandemic service levels. Just 15% of the exams are handled by VA health staff now. The other 85% are outsourced to private-sector contractors. The Under Secretary believes that this will be the norm as the department moves forward.
“The Veterans Health Administration is still dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, so the question is what is the best use of those doctors in terms of helping veterans?” he said. “That’s the kind of balancing act we’re looking at.”
However, in a letter to VA leadership last month, U.S. Representative Elaine Luria (D-Va.), head of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s panel on disability compensation, said she was concerned that the move of the exams outside of the VA health system could lead to less oversight of the process.
“I need your commitment that VA will ensure all contractors provide timely, high-quality C&P examinations to our disabled veterans,” Luria wrote. “For many veterans, thorough and accurate C&P examinations are crucial to securing service-connected benefits.”
Lawrence said he doesn’t have the same concerns as Luria.
“I know there are some reasons why VHA will continue to do these exams in some cases, such as veterans already being in their care,” he said. “But I just don’t see any data on the changes that leads me to those same worries. Contractors have been good about increasing capacity and providing flexibility.”
Lawrence thinks that several other departmental changes forced by coronavirus concerns in recent months — like remote town halls for benefits questions and increased remote services — will continue after the pandemic ends.
Reference: Military Times (Nov. 16, 2020) “VA moving ahead with plans to outsource all compensation and pension exams”