Sen. Bob Casey seeks to break logjam in VA claims

Pittsburgh has 8th-worst processing rate of the 56 offices across the U.S.

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WASHINGTON -- Returning Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers are using the same antiquated disability claims process their great-grandfathers used after World War II, a time when veterans were fewer -- and computer technology was nonexistent.

That isn't good enough for a half-dozen senators who introduced legislation Thursday to move claims faster to alleviate a cumbersome backlog.

More than 524,000 claims have been in queue for longer than six months, and some veterans and military widows have been waiting more than a year to receive benefits.

"We cannot say the federal government and those who enact policy in the federal government are worthy of the valor of our veterans unless we can say these claims are processed more expeditiously," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., one of six prime sponsors of the proposed fix.

With an average wait time of 364 days, Pittsburgh has the eighth-worst processing rate of the 56 Department of Veterans Affairs offices across the country. At 97 days, Providence, R.I., has the best, and at 526 days, Reno, Nev., is the worst.

"The idea that a veteran and their families have to wait a year to have their benefits processed is beyond outrage," Mr. Casey said at a news conference. "It should never, ever take that long."

Lawmakers want all claims to be processed within 125 days.

They say their proposed 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act will help. It's aimed at improving veterans' access to information about the claims process, overhauling practices of regional offices and mandating greater cooperation from other federal agencies.

"Everyone from the presidents to members of Congress to the VA to the veterans service organizations must work together to solve this problem that's been plaguing veterans way too long," said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

Other sponsors are Sens. David Vitter, R-La.; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.; and Jerry Moran, R-Kan. All are part of a work group that compiled a report on the veterans backlog, which also was released Thursday.

"Without changes, the VA will continue to experience difficulty ensuring the claims process is accurate, efficient, and delivers for our veterans when a surge of claims occurs," the senators said in the introduction to their report. "We believe veterans, the VA and Congress can all do more to fix the claims backlog."

The VA has been failing to process claims timely and accurately since at least 1993, they said, noting examples of a soldier who waited nine months for compensation after her back was broken in a helicopter crash and another who waited 19 months after losing an eye and the use of two limbs in an explosion.

"At best, waiting over 125 days for a disability compensation claim to be processed by the VA can be frustrating and tiresome. At worst, it can devastate a veteran financially and emotionally," the senators wrote.

Currently, there is a backlog of about 700,000 claims. More than half of them have been in queue for more than 125 days, according to the report.

The backlog has been variously attributed to accelerated troop drawdowns, the increasing complexity of claims, poor economic conditions that spur more claim filings, increased regulations that added steps to the process, broadened presumptions of exposure to herbicides in Vietnam, and more.

The VA has been working on reducing the backlog by prioritizing the least complicated claims, increasing training, redesigning medical forms, and incorporating new technology to streamline processing, but the senators said that isn't enough.

Veterans need to be part of the solution, too, the senators said Thursday.

That's why they want to ensure the VA gives the vets the tools they need to understand the process so that they provide all the right information the first time. The VA must better educate veterans and service organizations that help them file, they said.

The VA also should encourage veterans to file online through an integrated computer system that automatically emails relevant resources to the applicant, the senators said.

If veterans are better prepared to submit complete and accurate information, claims can be processed faster, the senators said.

The senators are also calling for the VA to establish a uniform mail processing and scanning system. And they want the Veterans Benefits Administration to analyze whether additional workers are needed and to issue annual reports on the backlog and on the length of time it takes other federal agencies to respond to requests for information necessary to complete claims.

Sponsors said they don't know how much it would cost to implement their plan or how they would pay for it.

Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello:, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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