The Veterans Affairs Department is unlikely to meet its goal of eliminating its claims backlog without the direct involvement of President Obama, a key Republican lawmaker said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said VA “seems aware of the urgency” of dealing with the mountain of 840,000 pending compensation and pension claims, but does not appear to be positioned to solve the problem on its own.
But Miller said the “highly ambitious” goal of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to eliminate the backlog by 2015 is achievable if key actions are taken, including getting attention from the White House.
“I’m convinced this goal is unachievable without a commitment from President Obama, an honest conversation about VA’s capabilities, a renewed focus on accountability among department executives and employees, and a conscious effort among department leaders to look outside the government for advice,” Miller said in remarks prepared for delivery at a breakfast sponsored by Concerned Veterans of America, a Republican-leaning veterans’ group, and the Weekly Standard, a self-described conservative magazine.
“President Obama must make a personal commitment to breaking the backlog, just as members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and many in the veterans’ service organization community have implored him to do on multiple occasions,” he said.
Miller is not blaming Obama for the mountain of claims. “To be clear, the backlog predates the Obama administration,” he said. “VA has been over-promising and under-delivering for decades under both Democrat and Republican administrations. VA leaders have been pledging to eliminate the backlog since George W. Bush was president. Look where that’s gotten us.”
According to weekly workload reports, VA had 840,989 pending claims on June 15, with about 66 percent sitting for more than VA’s self-imposed 125-day processing goal. While the backlog has been dropping for about two months, the average time to complete a claim is 334 days. The average varies by region, with Los Angeles having the worst record at 633 days.
Lawmakers have been trying to help, Miller said. “It is hard to remember a time when Congress didn’t provide the department with everything it has asked for, be it funding, personnel or technology,” Miller said. “Still, VA officials have failed to deliver the results they’ve been promising for years.”
Miller also wants VA to provide realistic estimates so veterans know what to expect. “Making overly optimistic projections about when VA can eliminate the backlog doesn’t help,” he said.
On Wednesday, VA announced that its paperless claims system — a key part of speeding the claims process — is now being used in all regional offices, and electronic claims are being accepted. Paper claims are still being accepted as well, but are being converted into electronic formats, so paper claims will take longer to process than those filed electronically.
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