My stepson is getting really good at magic tricks with cards.
The other day, he showed me a trick where he made my card – the card I picked from the deck – completely disappear.
For real. We still haven’t found it.
If anyone finds an extra “8 of Diamonds”, please drop it in the mail to me.
The VA’s latest “Magic Trick” is a lot like this. This time, it involves the dependency claims backlog and VA Form 21-4170.
Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Make a huge mess (by NOT processingDependency Claims).
Step 2: Pay a private company a TON of cash to make it LOOK like they are accomplishing something, when in truth they are just making the mess bigger.
Step 3: Don’t talk about the new – bigger – mess. Claim victory over the old mess.
Voila…the VA Claims Backlog is “disappeared”.
Let’s take a look at what is going on with the VA Form 21-4170 backlog, or the VA Dependency Claims backlog.
What is a Dependency Claim?
Generally, once a Veteran gets to the 30% rating level, their compensation will increase if they have a spouse and/or dependents. Here are the 2013 VA Disability Compensation rate tables that show the differences in compensation.
But a Veteran has to take a specific action to add their spouse to their VA Claim to get the extra compensation. Here are the 3 most common scenarios … although there are more than just these 2:
* Single Veteran, currently rated at/above 30%, gets hitched, or adds a dependent child.
* Married Veteran, currently rated below 30%, gets a claim for increased compensation granted pushing them above 30%.
In both of those scenarios, the Veteran will have to file VA Form 21-4170. This form is a “Statement of Marital Relationship”, and as you can see from looking at it, its got some pretty easy basic information on it. (If you are simply adding a dependent child, use VA Form 21-686c)
In theory, when the VA receives a VA Form 21-4170 from a Veteran, they simply fire up their Commodore 64 (seriously, the workstations some of these poor folks are forced to use to do their daily work are Dinosaurs), make a couple easy keystrokes, and voila, the dependent is added.
Easy peasy, right?
What problems is the VA facing with VA Form 21-4170?
The VA is having a HUGE problem with claims filed on VA Form 21-4170 since 2010.
I don’t know the exact reason why, but sometime about 3 years ago, the VA started flat out NOT PROCESSING dependency claims. We saw this problem as early as 2010, and it became increasingly worse…by 2013, it was a nightmare.
If you ask me, the problem stems back to the same issues we see inside the VA – lack of leadership, bureaucratic turf-battles, and a culture of cheating the system to look good – were just a few of the major contributors.
Add to that mix, the following:
* The VBA began, in 2009, a process of digitizing claims files. Apparently, they decided to join some 13 (or more) different VHA and VBA databases into one massive repository (I’m WAY oversimplifying what is happening in these VRM Platforms: VBMS, ebenefits, eHealth, Stakeholder Enterprise Portal and several others). Since the VBA couldn’t do a good job of adding dependents manually – the 15-20 keystrokes described above – we could predict that automating it would turn it into a good old fashioned Charlie Foxtrot.
* Survivors – and Veteran Dependents – have always been at the lowest point on the VBA’s “Shit Rolls Downhill” flow-chart. My own grandmother – the surviving spouse of a World War II Combat Veteran – was denied life changing benefits after being lied to by the VA and several VSOs. Close to half of our clients are the Surviving Spouses of deceased Veterans – many of these folks battle for benefits in their DIC and Accrued Benefits Claims for 2 to 3 DECADES or more.
* The VBA redefined the term “backlog” to exclude any dependency claims. In a classic Enron-esque number-juggling feat, they miraculously reduced the VA Claims Backlog, seemingly overnight.
(Taking a page from the VBA playbook, I have redefined the word “money” to now include Texas fire-ants. Guess what? With all the Texas Fire-Ants in my backyard, I got RICH overnight. Make believe is so much fun!)
As a result, the Dependency Claims Backlog grew….and grew…and grew…..and grew.
The VFW – who to their credit has really been driving awareness on this – testified before Congress in March 2014 that there were over 240,000 Dependency Claims that had not been processed in 3.5 years.
Congress, eager to take care of our nation’s returning combat heroes, has done …. well, nothing.
What is VA solution to the Dependency Claim backlog?
The processing of a Dependency Claims have TWO components:
1) Getting the Dependent properly added to the system
2) Calculating the proper Effective Date for when the Veteran’s dependent benefits should be paid.
The VA’s solution to problem #1 is to pay a government contractor to do the VAs work for it.
(Good luck finding an announcement of this program – when the VA is not publicly disclosing that it hired a contractor, you can expect issues.)
This amounts to the government having to cough up a huge sum to pay for the 15-20 keystrokes that the VBA employees somehow couldn’t do. We live in austere times, and – at my house – we don’t hire a company to come in open our mail when we don’t have the funds to pay for that luxury.
(A Leader in the VA would have set the expectation that VBA employees get these things handled as part of their job. If Steve Jobs can put 1,000 songs in your pocket – a bizarre idea in the early 2000s, then the VBA can type a couple words into a computer. )
Underlying the program is this concept of “Rules Based Processing”. You can read all about it here. Rules Based Processing System – or RBPS – is nothing more than a computer taking action on a claim based on the inputting of a few keystrokes by a user.
(See how we are back to the user entering the keystrokes, again?)
Their solution to Problem #2?
The same people that couldn’t do the work the first time around are going to make decisions about effective dates. Okay, to be honest, some of the Dependency Claims will be decided by the computer – or RBPS.
The rest – the more complicated forms – will still have to be decided by a human. That means it will take more time.
So, in summary, the VA has created its own backlog by not doing the work, and then paying a contractor to help it have more work to not do, while at the same time being able to say “We reduced the backlog”. The absurdity of this bureaucracy is mind-numbing.
How does that Affect Veterans filing Dependency Claims?
There is a little wrinkle in all this – the VA doesn’t know how to find your Dependency Claims. How do I know this? They are asking you to refile your Dependency Claims.
Remember how they stopped tracking them as part of the backlog?
Well, it seems like they have no way of knowing if your Dependency Claim is still waiting to be done or not.
There could be many reasons for this:
* The VBMS system (if that’s the system that is being used) does not have a way of flagging an “open loop” – an incomplete action – on a claim. This leaves open the possibility of all sorts of abuse of the system.
* The VBMS system (if that’s the system that is being used) does not have an indexing system to identify certain documents in the database. This is the digital equivalent of shredding paper. Mark my words – VBMS is going to become a stinking mess in a year or two.
* The VA lost, misplaced, shredded, or otherwise “disappeared” all your Dependency Claim Forms
Should you refile your dependency claim on VA Form 21-4170?
If you have been waiting between 3 months and 4 years for your dependency claim to be approved, I think you should take these actions.
Step 2: Make a copy of the VA Form 21-4170 you filed – never send the VA the only copy of anything.
Step 3: Draft a cover letter, with your claim number, indicating that you are refiling your VA Form 21-4170, and point the VA to the date of the original filing of that form, so you can recover past-due benefits back to the the earliest Effective Date you are entitled to by law.
In many cases, this will be the date you originally filed the VA Form 21-4170; there are scenarios where it could be much, much earlier.
When in doubt, call an accredited VA attorney to help you figure it all out.