Social Security Administration
before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs
June 12, 2013
Thank you, Chairman Sanders, for giving me the opportunity to discuss S. 674, the Accountability for Veterans Act of 2013. I appreciate this opportunity to discuss several ways in which we help the men and women who have served our Nation. The Social Security Administration (SSA) historically and proudly has been a “can-do” agency. The services we provide to our Nation’s veterans illustrate our deep commitment to assisting those in need. I applaud you, Senator, for leading the Committee’s efforts in helping the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) improve the processing of disability compensation applications.
For my statement today, I will focus specifically on the provision in the S. 674 that would require covered agencies, including SSA, to provide VA with information necessary to process a VA claim within 30 days after such information is requested by VA. The vast majority of the information we provide VA is medical records that we gather during the processing of the veterans’ claims for Social Security disability benefits.
While the purposes and eligibility criteria for VA and Social Security disability programs differ significantly, the process of determining disability in both programs hinges on medical information provided to adjudicators. Thus, we recognize that having complete and timely medical records is vitally important to both programs. We are proud of the work that we are doing with VA to help ensure veterans get the benefits due them, and we greatly value our mutually beneficial partnership with VA.
In March, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified before this Committee on VA’s disability compensation claims process. In its testimony, GAO created the impression that we do not promptly reply to the requests for medical records that we receive from VA. That impression is simply wrong. As the data show, we place a high priority on the requests we receive from VA and work very hard on responding to them timely.
In FY 2012, we received nearly 33,000 requests for medical evidence from VA. On average, we responded to those requests in less than a week. We currently have no pending requests that are older than 90 days. For the first quarter of fiscal year 2013, we received over 9,600 requests for medical evidence from VA. On average, we responded to those requests in less than a week, with only four cases taking longer than 60 days, and we responded to all of them in less than 90 days.1 Moving forward, we should be able to comfortably and consistently meet the requirement in S. 674 if it were enacted. However, even without a statutory requirement, I can assure you that we will continue to work hard to assist our Nation’s veterans and VA.
We have taken several steps to ensure that we continue to respond timely to VA’s requests. We centralized our process in our National Records Center (NRC) in Independence, Missouri. The NRC receives all requests and provides all records. If the requested records are in a paper file located in a different facility, the NRC requests the file, photocopies the medical records from it, and sends them to VA. By completely centralizing our process, we have greater control over these requests and ensure timely responses to all of them. We have also established processes to expedite Agent Orange and homeless veterans’ cases; on average, we send these records in two days or less from the date we receive the requests.
We also maintain good and regular communications with VA about requests for information. SSA had previously asked VA to follow up on requests for medical records after 60 days, but that timeframe was recently reduced to 20 days for a first followup and 35 days for a second followup. Finally, we developed a tracking system to ensure that we do not overlook a single case and have designated a staff person to serve as VA liaison in our NRC facility. Our NRC liaison tracks status and folder location for any request over 35 days old and explains any delays to VA.
We continue to work with VA to streamline the medical records request process. For example, we collaborated with VA to establish the Veterans Administration Regional Office (VARO) Project. Currently, five VARO sites participate in the project. The VARO Project uses a web-based tool that allows VA staff to communicate securely and directly with us. This automated tool significantly improves efficiency. We participate in weekly and monthly conference calls with VA headquarters personnel to discuss record requests, including any problems we have encountered and any improvements that can be made to the process.
Our involvement in VA’s disability compensation claims process extends beyond supplying medical records. Through numerous verification and exchange agreements, we also provide VA with verification of names and Social Security numbers, information about Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits, employer reports of earnings from our Master Earnings File, and indicators of death reports and prisoner data. VA uses these data for ensuring eligibility and accuracy of VA payments. Recently, we have implemented changes to increase the frequency of the earnings data exchanges from annually to weekly at the request of VA.
Again, thank you for your work on these important issues and for this opportunity to describe the ways we help Veterans. We are proud of our efforts to reach out to the men and women who have served this Nation. We think our partnership with VA is very effective. By working together with Congress, we believe both agencies will continue to make substantial progress towards providing the world-class service that our veterans deserve.
1 The current delays in processing VA requests are due to situations in which there are paper files that need to be mailed from another SSA location, such as a local field office or hearing office, to the NRC. As we have shifted from paper to electronic files, any delays should be further reduced as we can access electronic files instantaneously.