When in-person medical care was paused at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities earlier this year due to COVID-19, telehealth technologies allowed veterans to continue accessing health services. Arkansas veterans quickly adapted.
The Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System saw a 1,000 percent increase in VA Video Connect appointments since the beginning of the year. Similarly, the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville experienced an increase of 4,390 percent in virtual care over that same time. Despite the expanded online services, not all veterans have the ability to connect to the internet. For veterans who scheduled the required medical exam to apply for benefits, the wait time is getting longer, and we need to fix that.
Many veterans are required to complete a compensation and pension (C&P) exam to verify their medical condition and eligibility when applying for VA benefits. The backlog has been growing since last year when Congress expanded benefits eligibility to more veterans, more than tripling since November 2019 and now standing at 203,000 veterans nationwide. In Arkansas, more than 1,500 veterans are waiting for a C&P exam.
During a Senate VA Committee hearing in June, I pressed the VA on its plan to reduce the backlog. While department leaders were hopeful that resuming in-person exams would help decrease the number of veterans awaiting an appointment, they also requested additional flexibility to decrease the backlog.
Veterans shouldn’t have to wait months to file disability claims. We’ve taken great pride in strengthening benefits, so we need to ensure the infrastructure is in place to accommodate the increased number of people who are turning to the VA for help. It’s clear this framework is not meeting the current demand.
That’s why I introduced legislation to allow certain specialty medical professionals to perform C&P exams. By allowing additional health care personnel to conduct these health screenings, we can ensure veterans get the attention they deserve in a timely manner.
There is momentum building in Congress to expand the number of providers who can conduct disability exams. A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. The Chairman of the Senate VA Committee understands the urgency to provide flexibility and expand the VA’s capacity to conduct C&P exams. The chairman incorporated this bill in a comprehensive veterans’ benefits package that I am hopeful the committee will take up soon.
While in-person exams recently resumed at several VA facilities around the country including the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, we need to take action to help the thousands of veterans waiting for their exam so they can file their disability claims and receive the benefits they have earned.