Local VA worker's bright idea wins contest


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A Pittsburgh man's idea for speeding up military veterans disability claims has earned him special recognition.

Jack Hudson of Bethel Park, assistant veterans service center manager at the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs Regional Office, Downtown, was one of 10 winners in a nationwide innovation contest among VA employees and veterans service organizations sponsored by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki's office.

Mr. Hudson's idea sounds remarkably simple -- create and use standardized medical questionnaires for private physicians to fill out when they treat veterans to speed up the process for evaluating VA disability claims. Currently, veterans must undergo a further exam at a VA medical facility to get information on their conditions and degrees of disability.

Benefits for veterans from that simple idea could be significant.

For starters, they would no longer have to wait 25 to 30 days -- or longer -- to get a full assessment from a VA physician before their claim moves forward, putting them a month closer to getting deserved benefits.

"It cuts down the processing time and the paperwork that is necessary to adjudicate that claim," said Scott Hope, an assistant supervisor with the local Disabled American Veterans group. "It cuts down a lot of the preliminaries."

David Szymoniak, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, thinks that having the questionnaire in hand will help veterans better understand what information the VA needs to approve a claim, while also streamlining the whole process.

A veteran's private physician also will be more familiar with that person's medical history than a VA physician seeing the veteran for the first time, he noted.

Just getting to the exam may be daunting for some veterans. "Some of the guys are elderly and, especially in winter months, they shouldn't be out on the road or they're afraid to drive. Or they have financial issues and don't have the money to travel to the hospital."

Mr. Hudson said the system would benefit because fewer exams will be ordered, freeing up the VA's medical staff to treat other patients. Currently, he said, VA physicians in Western Pennsylvania perform about 7,000 exams annually for disability claims.

Mr. Hudson has not spoken to anyone in the private physician community about the plan, but he trusts the doctors won't mind the paperwork. "I hope they look at it in terms of, 'This is an opportunity to get a veteran the benefits he or she deserves.'"

The idea was spurred by the pending approval of "presumptive" disabilities related to those who served in Vietnam, said Mr. Hudson. Because of possible exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, those vets already are entitled to service-connected benefits if they develop Type II diabetes, under the presumption that Agent Orange may be at least partially responsible.

In coming months, the presumptive list will grow to include Parkinson's, as well as ischemic heart disease and leukemia.

That means about 200,000 veterans nationwide will automatically be eligible for benefits, which could cause a significant backlog in claims.

That prospect reminded Mr. Hudson of his tenure in Atlanta a decade earlier, and later in Winston-Salem, N.C., when he came up with a single-sheet questionnaire to speed up processing when diabetes was designated "presumptive."

After President Barack Obama announced the Innovation project in August at a VFW convention, the VA organized the contest calling for innovative ideas to improve the processing of claims.

There were more than 3,000 ideas submitted, with finalists chosen by Admiral Patrick W. Dunne, former VA undersecretary for benefits; Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Peter Levin, senior adviser to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and chief technology officer; and Garry Augustine, deputy national service director for disabled American veterans.

Mr. Hudson traveled to Washington, D.C., where he and Pittsburgh Regional Office Director Beth McCoy had 20 minutes to sell the panel on their idea. They learned two weeks ago that their idea was one of 10 chosen from those submitted by the 57 regional offices nationwide.

Actual implementation will take several months, as they need to develop templates for dozens of different diagnoses. The final questionnaires may range from five to 30 questions, they said, depending on the condition they're assessing. They also will need to get approvals to ensure the questionnaires comply with federal regulations.

Ms. McCoy said they would start with the most common, most objective claims first -- such as hearing loss or a heart condition -- before trying it on more complex conditions.

"We're very early in the process," she said. "We want to make sure it's a good product."

But once those hurdles are cleared, she added, Mr. Hudson's idea could have a national impact, which could be particularly helpful to veterans in remote areas who face long drives to reach the nearest VA facility.


Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963. First Published March 3, 2010 5:00 AM


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