The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 19, 2013

Walz, Franken bill would ease VA backlog

Minor changes would help vets get disability ratings more quickly

By Dan Linehan

---- — NORTH MANKATO — Nearly 600,000 veterans have waited 125 days or more to get a disability rating, the doorway for other benefits.

A bill authored by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and Sen. Al Franken would take incremental steps to reduce that backlog. A staff member from each official stopped by South Central College on Wednesday to take advice from a veteran and a veterans benefits director.

The Quicker Benefits Delivery Act does not make “sweeping changes” to clear the backlog, but it takes small steps and every advance helps, said Shawn Schloesser, veterans field representative for Walz, a Mankato Democrat.

It has two main provisions.

The first would require the Veterans Benefits Administration to accept medical evidence from private providers or explain why they reject it.

Apparently, the bureaucrats who determine disability levels are not inclined to accept medical evidence from private doctors and instead tend to order appointments by government doctors. These extra examinations cause delays and are sometimes unnecessary.

Gary Evenson, Blue Earth County's veterans services officer for more than 30 years, gave the example of audiology exams, saying they are time-consuming for Department of Veterans Affairs doctors. He suggested the change could speed up the benefits process.

The second change would allow the VA to more quickly allow partial or temporary benefits to disabled veterans.

The department can already award so-called “pre-stabilization” ratings at the levels of 50 percent and 100 percent. The bill allows for a third rating, at 30 percent, which the bill's sponsors believe would allow more benefits to receive a minimum level of benefits more quickly. This measure does not have a large fiscal cost because veterans already get back-pay when they get their disability rating later on; the change merely allows that money to be disbursed earlier.

The bill would also authorize the VA to pay housing benefits under the GI Bill before the first of the month. If a veteran starts school in early September, he or she might not start getting benefits until Oct. 1.

A veteran of the Coast Guard, Brodie Cownie, watched as the staff members discussed the bill.

“These things really make sense. I see how they could speed up the process,” said Cownie, who lived in Honolulu before moving to the Mankato area in 2009. He retired as a lieutenant commander and now works at South Central College in network administration.

He said he had good experiences with the VA. “My expectation was that it was going to take longer,” Cownie said.

That appears to be in part because Minnesota's VA office is among the country's best. Its average wait time for disability ratings is 94 days, compared to 313 days for the Chicago office.

The bill is identical in the House and Senate, and Walz has secured Republican co-sponsors such as Jeff Denham of California. It hasn't yet passed the armed service committee in either body.

The total cost for the bill is less than $100,000.