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Bill would speed progress on claims backlog

Senators push for better customer service

Mar. 10, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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The backlog of benefits claims pending with the Veterans Affairs Department has dropped by almost half from this time last year, when it made headlines as a national embarrassment and an insult to the service of veterans.

But despite that dramatic reduction, a group of senators still worries the backlog is not disappearing fast enough.

Members of the Senate’s VA Backlog Working Group are pushing for new legislation to help zero out the number, and to keep attention on the improving but still ongoing problem.

Their bill, the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, would provide better customer service for veterans with pending claims, offer more money to veterans who file “fully developed” claims and mandate stricter oversight of claims officials.

“The key is that we’re not here five years from now having the same conversations,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., sponsor of the legislation. “Right now, the system we have is designed for World War II veterans. We’re trying to drag this system into the 21st century.”

VA officials have not offered an official position on the new legislation. In a statement, spokesman Drew Brookie said the department is still focused on its publicly stated goal of zeroing out the backlog — claims cases pending for more than 125 days — by the end of 2015.

“We have made strong progress, and we know there is more work to do,” Brookie said.

The backlog currently sits at around 368,000 cases. It peaked at 611,000 in late March 2013, roughly four times higher than when President Obama pledged to erase the problem in early 2009.

VA officials have blamed more complex cases and a 2010 major revision in Agent Orange-related claims for the rise in the backlog.

But they also credit better technology, new processing techniques and mandatory overtime in helping to drive down the backlog total. They also have implemented changes similar to the provisions of Heller’s bill, such as awarding a year of retroactive benefits to veterans who file fully developed claims, which are designed to make processing and completion of a case easier.

Heller applauded VA’s recent success but said he has concerns that the effort will not be sustainable without fundamental changes in how VA workers do business.

He and other senators on the bipartisan working group also voiced concerns that the recent progress may divert attention and pressure away from VA, even though tens of thousands of veterans are still waiting for results.

But whether the legislation can advance quickly enough to make a difference remains to be seen. Related comprehensive veterans legislation from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Comomittee, has been languishing in that chamber. And even with bipartisan support on the issue, it could take months to shepherd the bill through the House.

The cost of the changes is unknown, although Heller maintains that it would be minimal for most of the items outlined in his bill.

Meanwhile, the backlog total hasn’t dipped below 300,000 cases since January 2011. But VA could go under that mark before this summer, if recent progress trends hold steady.

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