A group of senators from states with large veterans' populations is appealing to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as a Vietnam veteran to do everything he can to help reduce the backlog of veterans' disability claims.
Led by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., senators from Florida, New York and Texas are pushing, in particular, for electronic records-sharing between the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments as a way of speeding claims that are, on average, taking more than 300 days to complete for Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans filing their first disability claims.
Electronic records, especially medical records, would not single-handedly eliminate the pile of more than 900,000 pending veterans' claims, but they would make a dent and smooth the path for faster processing of new claims.
“The Veterans Benefit Administration claims file is still in paper format for nearly all veterans,” said Michael Viterna, president of the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates. “The paper claims file is a dinosaur that is at the heart of VA's inability to improve disability claim processing.”
In the letter sent to Hagel on Thursday, Boxer and five other senators say claims processing times are “simply unacceptable.” Veterans wait, on average, 439 days for claims processed in Waco, Texas. In New York and Los Angeles, the comparable figures are 449 and 506 days, respectively, they say, citing VA workload reports.
Delays in obtaining military medical and service records account for at least part of the problem, with VA officials saying that adds 30 or more days to processing time.
Defense and VA officials have made improvements, the letter acknowledges, “but it is clear that more must be done to improve the timeliness of record exchanges and to expand cooperation.”
They appealed to Hagel to make this a priority. “As a combat veteran, you have a deep personal understanding of the challenges currently facing our nation's veterans. We know you share our commitment to ensuring all veterans receive the benefits they deserve in a timely and accurate manner,” the letter says.
Electronic record-sharing has been a contentious issue for years because DoD and VA have had difficulty coming up with a seamless transition process, although a joint agency task force was created earlier this year to look for solutions. A searchable database of military records also is being created for VA's use. It could be available by year's end.
In the meantime, veterans continue to wait. On Friday, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., asked VA to send more claims processors to her state after discovering 7,000 veterans have been waiting more than a year for their benefits to be processed and 700 have been waiting for two years or longer. She called the numbers “alarming,” and said things seem to be getting worse instead of better.
Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the average VA claim is taking 273 days, but the wait is longer for new veterans. “If it's your first claim, like it is for most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, it is actually 316 to 327 days,” he said. And, in some places, like California, Texas, New York and Chicago, the wait can be even longer, he said.
“Long wait times have a devastating impact on veterans and their families who are trying to successfully transition to civilian life,” Tarantino said. “Veterans are still languishing in a VA disability system that was obsolete before most veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were born.”