WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee has ordered congressional staff to accompany outside reviewers checking on how well the Department of Veterans Affairs processes disability claims, after complaints that the VA's Seattle regional office hindered the reviewers' work in January.
The Feb. 14 order by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., is the first time Congress will intervene in visits made by representatives of the American Legion, a nonprofit veterans organization.
Though the Legion has been making routine visits to VA offices nationwide for 15 years, its quality reviews are not required under any legal or congressional authority.
For the prearranged visits, Legion representatives ask for a random sampling of recently processed disability claims for review with VA officials. They also meet confidentially with nonmanagement staff to discuss any issues and concerns.
The Legion currently is assisting 720,000 veterans across the nation in filing their claims, sometimes acting with the power of attorney. During their site visits, Legion representatives review only cases where they hold power of attorney for the veteran.
The VA is trying to whittle a huge backlog of disability claims that have grown more complex, with each claim on average containing more than seven medical issues.
During a four-day visit to Seattle that began Jan. 21, however, Legion representatives say they were prevented from interviewing rank-and-file personnel. That lack of access was unprecedented and hampered the group's ability to thoroughly examine the VA's ruling on the claims, said Zachary Hearn, American Legion's deputy director for claims.
Hearn was one of four Legion representatives on the Seattle trip. They met with Patrick Prieb, director of the VA's Seattle regional office, as well as others.
"It wasn't like we weren't able to do anything, but we weren't able to do as much as we typically could have done," Hearn said.
Hearn declined to be more specific, saying the Legion depends on cooperation from the VA to advocate for veterans.