As federal officials work to eliminate a huge backlog of applications for veterans disability benefits and streamline the process so it doesn't recur, the system will lose a bit of its folksy informality. That's an acceptable price to pay for greater efficiency, but let's make sure disabled veterans won't lose money in the transition.
For decades veterans have not been required to submit a standardized federal form to initiate a claim for disability benefits. Any note indicating the intent to file was enough to start the process. And if an application with supporting documentation was completed within one year and benefits were subsequently approved, they could be paid retroactively to the date of that first informal note.
That will change if a controversial new rule under consideration by the Department of Veterans Affairs is implemented. Veterans would be required to use only official VA forms to initiate disability claims and appeals. And filing online would be the only way to preserve the date they initiated the process as the start date for retroactive payments. Some veterans groups, including Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, fear that change will cost disabled veterans, particularly older ones uncomfortable with digital technology, thousands of dollars in retroactive benefits. To avoid that VA officials should continue to start the benefit clock for vets whose service ended decades ago, even if their first application is on paper and incomplete.
With that caveat, it's time the VA streamlined and computerized this process. The informal claims system, with its low-tech paperwork and back-and-forth between officials and claimants, slows the process. That has contributed to a backlog of about 400,000 veterans waiting more than 125 days for a decision. Electronic processing is critical to achieving the department's goal of eliminating the backlog in 2015 and has helped cut it by 36 percent since March. That's progress to build on.