Pittsburgh area veterans hit hard by backlog of claims

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WASHINGTON -- More than 866,000 veterans nationwide are awaiting disability benefits, and processing is taking an average of 9.5 months.

The wait is even longer in the Pittsburgh region, which is home to more veterans than almost anywhere else in the country.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said help is on the way thanks to better training and new technology, but lawmakers in Washington are skeptical he will be able to fulfill a promise to clear the backlog by 2015.

"The situation is worse today than it ever has been before," said Florida Republican Jeff Miller last week during a hearing of the House Armed Services committee, which he chairs. "Most committee members here are very tired of the excuses we keep hearing."

Mr. Shinseki said the backlog is the result of increased demand over a decade at war. Many veterans are returning from deployments with severe, complex injuries, he said during several hearings in Washington, including one Monday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

In Pittsburgh, 11,592 claims await processing, and the average wait is 307 days, according to the Veterans Administration. Only 1 in 5 Pittsburgh veterans has his claim processed within 125 days, the target the department is aiming for.

The lag time is troubling to Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.

"As I meet with veterans and other constituents from across Pennsylvania, they continually talk to me about the frustration and difficulties they encounter due to the backlog of claims decisions," he wrote Thursday in a pair of nearly identical letters to Mr. Shinseki and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

"The effort is not just to automate our systems but to get others to provide us [records digitally] so we have a seamless handoff of veterans," Mr. Shinseki said.

The Defense Department is working on a computer system that will integrate with the Veterans Affairs' new $537 million Veterans Benefits Management System. For now, the Pentagon is still submitting paper records, but those documents are more complete than ever before, said retired Brig. Gen. Allison A. Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits administration.

"They are, right now, giving me something we've never had before. They are going through and finding their medical records ... and they are doing the business on their end of pulling all that together on their end, certifying it's 100 percent correct and handing to me -- for the first time ever -- a fully complete medical record," Ms. Hickey said.

The plan is to begin transferring those records electronically starting in January 2014.

The VA still hasn't finished converting all of its regional offices to the new electronic system. So far, 30 of the 56 are online and several more are expected to begin using the system by the end of this week, Ms. Hickey said.

The Pittsburgh office began using it March 18, VA spokeswoman Ashley McLellan said in a telephone interview.

"It's only been about three weeks, so there hasn't been enough feedback or statistics yet to know how it's going there," she said.

Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the transition to electronic record keeping should have begun long ago.

Currently, many records are kept in paper form.

In one case, Veterans Affairs inspectors found claims files stacked so high that they posed a physical safety threat to workers at a regional office in Winston-Salem, N.C., according to an August 2012 report.

Veterans groups are looking for speed and efficiency in processing.

"Veterans are returning home to fight another battle, waiting for their disability benefits. These benefits were earned through the selfless sacrifice of service and are vital for a successful transition home," said Angela King, a Navy veteran and leadership fellow with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Alex Nicholson, a lobbyist for her group, brought similar concerns last week to the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

"Those who cannot seek work because of a service-connected disability continue to face an unacceptably backlogged VA disability claims pipeline, which denies those veterans who cannot work the compensation they deserve to make up for their loss of earnings," he said in written testimony.

Mr. Shinseki said he knows more needs to be done.

"Too many veterans wait too long to receive benefits they deserve. We know this is unacceptable," Mr. Shinseki told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee last week.

Currently, 3.9 million veterans receive disability benefits totaling about $54 billion a year.

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Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.


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