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VA riles veterans with push to change disability claims process

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Vietnam veteran Paul Troop, honors his fallen comrades while at the World War II Memorial on Veterans Day in Washington, Nov. 11, 2013.(Reuters)

The Department of Veterans Affairs wants to change the decades-old way in which veterans file for disability claims -- and it has veterans advocacy groups outraged.  

The VA has proposed mandating the use of standardized forms for filing claims. The current rules allow veterans to submit claims in a variety of ways, including a simple handwritten note. The moment a veteran contacts the VA to claim a disability, whether it be via email or a handwritten note, that becomes the starting point for retroactive pay should the claim be approved. 

But the VA wants to get rid of this so-called "informal claim process," requiring veterans to register online or fully complete a standard handwritten form. Retroactive pay would be received starting at the date the form is fully completed -- meaning the clock won't start ticking for partially complete handwritten forms, as it does now.  

Representatives from the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars say this is a "seismic change" that will hurt veterans. They say it rewards those who use the Internet, essentially creating classes among veterans.  

"We have concerns because the average age of the American veteran is 64 years old and the 2010 census reported that 55 percent of Americans 65 and older do not have regular access to the Internet," said Zachary Hearn, deputy director of benefits for the American Legion.   

Jerry Manar, with Veterans of Foreign Wars, has many similar problems with the proposed change. In an interview with Fox News, he said that incomplete forms and delayed start dates for retroactive pay could cost deserving veterans thousands of dollars.

"The VA is absolutely right to go the electronic way, but to penalize vets who don't have the resources to claim electronically by tens of thousands of dollars or more is too much, too severe," Manar said. "Under this change the VA is not going to accept a claim from a veteran in writing until they complete an entire form, answer every question, dot every 'i', cross every 't' -- and it may take weeks or months for veterans to obtain the information necessary to complete the form, support their claim and send it in."  

In a statement to Fox News, the VA said it's simply trying to modernize and catch up with its 400,000 backlogged claims.

"VA wants to make it as fast and easy as possible for Veterans and their survivors to file for and receive an accurate decision on their claim," the statement said. "This proposed rule would require the use of standardized forms to help streamline the claims process and modernize the VA system to ensure Veterans and their families receive the benefits they deserve more quickly."

Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the Department of Defense is in “lockstep” with the VA on this push to move claims into the electronic realm. He said a majority of veterans from the Iraq and Afghan wars can make a claim on their phone and they want it that way. Kirby also said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was recently briefed on the initiative and said he was “encouraged by the progress that has been made so far.”

The VA does not have an estimated date for the decision.