BOISE, IDAHO — The head of the Department of Veterans Affairs said the agency is making strides in reducing the backlog and reducing the time it takes to process pension and disability claims.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Wednesday an electronic filing network intended to replace the paperwork system is already showing positive results. For example, the number of files processed at 56 regional VA offices across the country increased from 80,000 in February and March to 94,000 in April and 94,000 last month, he said.
“Veterans, including veterans in Idaho, are waiting too long to get their benefits. We’re working to change that,” Shinseki said during a press conference at the VA’s Boise regional office.
Shinseki, a retired Army four-star general who has headed the VA since 2009, has made the backlog a top priority. His 2015 timeline “is aggressive, but I think it’s workable,” he said in a story published Thursday by the Idaho Statesman.
On Monday, the VA reported that it had 833,130 claims, with two-thirds — 547,922 — pending for more than 125 days. The average paper claim takes 290 days to process, Shinseki said. He said he’s confident the new system will cut that time by more than half.
“Our calculations are that this will get us down to 125 days,” while avoiding mistakes that have been a problem with paper claims, Shinseki said. “Speed and accuracy are both important.”
For Idaho veterans filing claims in Boise, service is typically faster than in other regional offices, he said. Cases handled by its staff are typically processed in 143 days, better than the other 15 Western offices. Salt Lake City averages 256 days; Portland, 230; Seattle, 250; and Reno, 331, according to the latest report.
At times, the claims process has been so complicated that it was nearly impossible for a veteran to submit a successful claim, said Josh Callihan, spokesman for the Boise VA Medical Center.
Most veterans rely on state and county veterans service officers to assist with their claims. With the new system, veterans still might use the service officers or can submit their claims online themselves.
Representatives of two statewide veterans organizations applauded Shinseki’s efforts but questioned whether the software will be as effective as advertised.
“It’s good to try and get the backlog down. However, I’m not sure they’ll be able to do that,” said Arthur Gimpel, an Idaho Falls resident who serves as state commander of the American Legion.