As frustration with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs grows due to the lack of integrated electronic health records, so does disbelief and disappointment at the number of backlogged disability claims the VA has been unable to handle. To speed the process of getting wounded and disabled veterans the benefits they’re entitled to, the House of Representatives has approved the VA’s plan of hiring more processors.
The spending bill, which gives the VA money to hire 94 new claims processors, will help the department slog through more than half a million claims, some going back to the Vietnam era. New claims, mostly by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have an average wait time of more than 300 days, which House lawmakers have condemned as unacceptable. “I will not accept any further excuses; the VA must make progress,” said Democratic Representative Nita Lowey. The bill advanced on a vote of 421-4.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should be pleased with the news, as it follows closely on the heels of his ambitious announcement that the department will attempt to clear all pending claims by 2015, with a 98% accuracy rate. To handle the overwhelming number of applications, Shinseki plans to take the system electronic to make processing quicker and more efficient. The VA’s electronic benefits system should be in place in all 56 locations by the end of 2013.
“This has been decades in the making,” Shinseki said in March of the claims queue that has swelled considerably under his tenure. “Ten years of war. We’re in paper; we need to get out of paper. No veteran should have to wait for claims. The president’s been very clear. Veterans are a top priority with him and ending the backlog is a foremost in his mind. He has made that very clear.”
Additional amendments to the bill include a 25% pay cut for the top VA officials unless 40% of claims older than 125 are reduced by July, and approval to shift $44 million in funding for mandatory overtime to VA centers with the worst backlogs, including Los Angeles at 576 days, and Reno, NV at 504. The bill also stripped $10 million off the VA’s budget for conferences, diverting the money to claims processing initiatives.
The bill will head to the Senate, where it may not pass due to political wrangling over the process of creating the federal budget. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill since it is not part of a comprehensive budget deal.