Lawmakers vow to end Veterans Affairs claims backlog - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Lawmakers vow to end Veterans Affairs claims backlog

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It's a troubling problem -- veterans returning from war and then left waiting for months and sometimes years for their disability claims.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has a backlog of nearly 600,000 claims pending for more than 125 days. On Wednesday, lawmakers on Capitol Hill called that unacceptable and introduced legislation to try and fix the problem.

"The backlog has risen to national attention and prompted much outrage and for good reason ... this number is unacceptable and must be addressed," said Representative Mike Michaud (D-ME), ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

These are veterans who have already paid a high price. After fighting for their country in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, they face critical delays getting benefits.

Democratic lawmakers on the committee have now introduced a package of legislation vowing to end the backlog by 2015. With Memorial Day coming, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said "the challenge to our conscious, of meeting the needs of our veterans is heightened."

In Nevada, the average wait to process a claim is 17 months. The VA's Maryland office in Baltimore is also among the worst, averaging 15 months, along with the VA's regional office in Waco, Texas.

Just last month, Representative Beto O'Rourke's (D-TX) office tried to help an El Paso family who had waited more than 400 days for a decision on a disability claim.

"We were able to expedite the claim, but by the time we got the answer at day 439, he had passed away,” he said.

Too often veterans groups say that is what happens.

"In many cases, what happens is the veterans die," said Rick Weidman, Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs with the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Weidman said they have even got a saying: "Deny, delay, deny until we die. Unfortunately that's happened far too often."

The biggest delay is getting the Department of Defense to turn over electronic medical records to the VA. While it takes an average of 250 days nationally to process a claim, 175 days of that is waiting on records from DOD.

Among the measures introduced Wednesday in the House, DOD would have 21 days to turn over records. Another would require the VA to pay veterans when each medical condition is approved.

Iraq and Afghanistan often have multiple conditions in a claim, but must wait for everyone to be processed before getting any money. This should help speed up the process as well as give veterans some financial help sooner.

"Their disability should be processed in timely fashion ... delayed care is denied care," said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ).

The VA is attempting to speed up the process, but with more than 900,000 claims at any given time, the agency can't say how long it will take to clear the backlog. It is also working to get a new computer system in its offices nationwide by the end of the year that will eliminate paper records.

The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs also sent a letter to President Barack Obama Wednesday. It's a call to action to make sure that when military men and women come home, we leave no veteran behind.

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