Veteran Travel Reimbursement Headaches Prompt VA to Pursue New Options for Claims Filing, Processing

by Braxton Taylor

Elizabeth Oomps, wife of retired Marine Maj. Lloyd Oomps, accompanied her husband to a medical appointment Nov. 7 at the Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Cambridge, Maryland, 96 miles from the couple’s home in picturesque Onancock, Virginia.

Immediately following the visit, she popped a paper travel claim into the facility’s depository and waited for the reimbursement. When it hadn’t come by Dec. 29, she struggled with the VA’s online travel reimbursement system to attempt to refile the claim, and when that didn’t work, made a few phone calls.

That’s when she learned that her husband would not get reimbursed for gas and mileage, because the electronic claim wasn’t submitted within 30 days of his appointment.

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“I didn’t know about the 30 days,” Elizabeth Oomps said in an email last month to Military.com. “This is SO UNFAIR, and even [though] I have tried EVERYTHING to show that we didn’t know about the 30 days, they will not pay the mileage.”

Between the end of a pandemic-era flexibility for veterans to submit travel claims at any time, the challenges posed by the VA’s app-based travel claims system for some veterans, and the removal of filing kiosks that relied on an older system from medical facilities, veterans continue to have trouble filing travel reimbursement claims, with some simply giving up and paying out of pocket.

Military.com has received dozens of complaints over travel reimbursement claims. Iraq War Army veteran Crystal Miller, who works as a veterans service officer, told Military.com she had surgery in March 2023 and tried multiple times to input appointments into the electronic system. But since the locations she attended — a mobile site and a non-VA neurosurgeon — weren’t in the system, it didn’t work.

“I got paid for none of them. I actually just cried at the hoops they expect veterans to jump through to get their mileage reimbursement,” Miller said in an email.

The Veterans Health Administration rolled out the Beneficiary Travel Self-Service System, or BTSSS, in November 2020 to replace a long-standing system accessible through stand-alone kiosks at VA medical facilities or by submitting paper claims.

The system, developed by Liberty IT Solutions, now part of Booz Allen Hamilton, was designed to solve claims automatically, without human involvement, at least 90% of the time and was to be used by veterans without them requiring assistance at least 80% of the time.

But a VA OIG review published last year found that just 17% of claims filed from February 2021 through July 2022 were automatically adjudicated, “well short of … the goal of 90%.”

And it found that veterans and staff were having difficulties using the system. The OIG calculated that veterans used the web-based portal for only about 49% of total claims and said travel employees had implemented workarounds to deal with the new program or used the old system to approve claims.

In response to the watchdog’s report, the VA decided to integrate a claims filing system into the patient check-in process and announced it would develop a program that will let staff more efficiently handle paper claims.

Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said Monday during a press conference that the VA also is taking a top-down look at travel reimbursements to make the system more user-friendly and provide different options for filing claims, a process that will take “a couple of months.”

“I’ve been hearing a lot about this, and we just have to make this process easier. Right now, it is not easy enough for too many veterans to be able to file a claim on time and get reimbursement,” Elnahal said.

Currently, the VA has several ways to submit claims and accelerate payments. In addition to the BTSSS, veterans can use the VA.gov app when they check in for their medical appointments — a system put in place by the end of last year.

And it has piloted a modified claims kiosk system based on another app, called VetLink, at the Charleston, South Carolina, VA Medical Center. That system will be tested in more locations this year, at select sites in South Carolina, Kansas City and the Southwest, according to VA spokeswoman Gina Jackson.

“Both of these enhancements offer direct integration with BTSSS, streamlining the claims submission process for the veteran and allowing the opportunity for the claim to be automatically adjudicated,” Jackson said in an email.

Veterans also are able to file paper claims at their local VA medical centers, although Oomps found that process to be less than reliable.

“Even though I can prove (and VA does not dispute) that I drove my husband to this appointment, he would NOT BE PAID due to having entered the date into the labyrinthine and arcane website that I could not access until December after an expired 30-day limitation,” Oomps said.

According to the VA, the department suspended what was a 30-day deadline for filing VA travel reimbursement claims at the start of the pandemic — an allowance that ended on June 9, 2023, following the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The VA announced that change, along with five other impacts on VA services and benefits, in a news release in May 2023. It is unclear whether VA medical centers notified patients directly or whether veterans received any message on the change.

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