Veterans will get more help from the Veterans Affairs Department when submitting benefits claims under a final rule published in the Federal Register Wednesday. The rule, which took effect Wednesday, implements the provisions of the 2000 Veterans Claims Assistance Act, signed into law by President Clinton last year. The law strengthens VA's current "duty to assist" program, which requires the agency to help veterans gather service records, medical records and other documents necessary to file a complete benefits claim. The rule directs VA to inform veterans of the information necessary to complete their claims, inform claimants when important medical or military service information is missing, provide medical examinations for disabled veterans who cannot afford medical care and provide any other appropriate and necessary assistance to veterans. The agency must tell veterans if it cannot find pertinent claims information, and give them the opportunity to submit personal evidence for information the VA cannot obtain. When submitting claims, veterans have a year to submit any additional evidence the VA requests. The rule also allows veterans to reopen a denied claim by submitting "new and material evidence," documentation that has not previously been submitted to the agency and that serves to substantiate the claim. The VA's slow and inefficient claims processing system has been repeatedly criticized in recent years. The agency has tried to improve its claims processing accuracy by using case management techniques to speed the process and reorganizing its field offices into clusters intended to collaborate with one another. Despite VA's attempts at reform, its claims processing system is still error-prone. According to a June report from the General Accounting Office, VA reported errors in 41 percent of the claims it processed during fiscal 2000. The same report said an agency training program designed to reduce mistakes in processing veterans' disability benefits is at least two years behind schedule.
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