The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 11, 2013

Local veterans benefits slowed by federal delays

Feds shifted thousands of cases to Minnesota because of its efficiency

By Josh Moniz

---- — MANKATO — Local veteran benefit offices are facing major slowdowns in the processing time for their veteran benefit claims due to the federal government shifting backlogged cases from other states to the St. Paul regional office.

The shift is part of a national effort to address massive delays in processing times of veteran claims across the country.

According to rough estimates from Blue Earth County Veteran Services and Nicollet County Veteran Services, local processing times for standard veteran benefit claims have jumped from an average of three months to an average of six to eight months. Similarly, the smaller, quicker Fully Developed Claims have increased from an average of 35 days to process to a minimum of three months. Other factors, such as the federal government shutdown, have impacted the processing time, but the majority of the slowdown is from the shifted claims limiting available staff.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shifted cases from struggling states to top performing states to help with efforts to reduce the nationwide problem of long processing time for veterans, which have reached two years in some states. The federal VA offices are aiming to eliminate the backlog by 2015.

The St. Paul regional office was shifted thousands of claims this year due to it having one of the fastest claims processing times in the country. The precise number of cases shifted was not available Wednesday, but county officials have been informed it was at least 8,000 claims.

The weekly workload reports from the federal VA shows the impact of the shifts on the St. Paul office. The report on Monday showed St. Paul's claims under the Entitlement category have grown from 9,675 claims pending, with 29 percent pending for over 125 days, in April to 13,946 cases pending, with 39 percent pending for over 125 days, this week. The numbers do not include the cases shifted to the St. Paul office, only the increasing backlog of its own cases.

Nicollet County Veterans Service Officer Charlie Dempewolf said the federal VA office has performed shifts for years, but prior shifts were only several hundred cases. He said the shift of thousands of cases this year has seriously slowed the system and upset the veterans that he serves.

"(The shifts) are not popular with service organizations, veteran organizations and veterans," Dempewolf said.

Minnesota lawmakers U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and U.S. Sen. Al Franken introduced companion bills dealing with the issue in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate at the start of the year. The bills seek to speed up veteran access to benefits by allowing veterans to conduct their disability medical examinations with their local doctors, instead of waiting for availability at veteran hospitals. The bills would also require awarding of interim benefits to veterans while their claims are being processed.

Neither bill has been brought up for a vote, but sources have indicated that the Senate bill may be debated in the near future.

“Plain and simple, the VA benefits backlog is unacceptable. That is why I introduced a bipartisan bill with Sen. Franken to help the VA work towards ending the backlog and getting our veterans the benefits they deserve quicker. While there is no easy solution to fix this problem, this bipartisan bill will go a long ways in ensuring our veterans get the care they have earned quicker," said Walz in a statement.

Local veteran county officials said they are hopeful that processing times will return to normal next year after the shifted claims are handled.