The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

September 14, 2013

VA finally making progress on benefits claims backlog

LOS ANGELES — Mike Dalton starts his day at a Department of Veterans Affairs office in Oakland doing something he couldn’t do a year ago: He signs on to a computer and calls up an application for disability compensation.

With a few mouse clicks, he pulls the information he needs to rate a veteran’s injuries.

The new computer system is the centerpiece of a major overhaul that department officials promise will clear the backlog of claims that has had severely wounded veterans waiting months — if not years — to find out whether they will receive financial help.

With pressure mounting from lawmakers, veterans groups and the media, the VA has been reorganizing its work flow, hiring more claims processors, revamping their training and requiring them to work 20 hours of overtime a month to clear the backlog.

There are signs of progress. On June 20, the department said it had processed 97 percent of the claims that had been pending for two years or longer, providing decisions in more than 65,000 cases.

As of Monday, more than 751,000 claims were pending nationwide, 457,000 of them for more than 125 days, the VA’s standard for timeliness. That is down 25 percent from a peak of 611,000 stalled claims in March, according to VA statistics. The figures do not include 250,000 claims under appeal.

“The backlog is now declining,” VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in July. “We are somewhat behind where we predicted and would have wanted to be, but that percentage will shift downwards quickly.”

Still, many veterans and their advocates are skeptical that the VA will meet its target of completing all claims within 125 days by 2015.

“The numbers have come down significantly, but to address the backlog by 2015 is still going to be a herculean task,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who co-hosted a town hall meeting with VA officials in San Francisco this year. Veterans at the meeting vented for hours about claims stalled because of lost paperwork, faulty decision-making and bureaucratic red tape.

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