By Sandra Basu
ORLANDO, FL – Amid months of criticism of his administration’s handling of the VA disability claims backlog, President Barack Obama directly addressed the issue here last month, telling veterans that the longer waits are “unacceptable.”
“Part of it is all these new veterans in the system who came in – Agent Orange, PTSD. It means a lot more claims and, despite additional resources, it’s resulted in longer waits,” Obama said last month at the Disabled American Veterans’ annual convention. “And that’s been unacceptable – unacceptable to me, unacceptable to Secretary Shinseki.”
At of the beginning of August, VA reported about 780,000 claims are pending, with about 500,000 of those claims in its inventory over 125 days.
In recent months, VA has introduced several new initiatives to help reduce the backlog. In May, VA said it was mandating overtime for claims processors to increase production of compensation claims decisions. In April, VA launched an initiative to expedite disability compensation claims decisions for veterans who have a waited a year or longer. In addition, this year, VA has expanded its electronic claims paperless system to all of its offices.
Citing those efforts, Obama assured veterans that, while the claims backlog has not moved as fast as he would like, it is now shrinking.
“In the last five months alone it is down nearly 20%. We are turning the tide. We are not going to let up until we eliminate the backlog once and for all,” he said.
Capitol Hill Anger
Obama’s comments on the backlog underscored the urgency of the issue. Advocacy groups and lawmakers repeatedly have expressed anger and dismay about the number of veterans waiting on their benefits.
In response to the president’s speech, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) said in a written statement that the president “made no reference to the oft-cited 2015 goal the Department of Veterans Affairs has set for ending the disability compensation claims backlog, even though he is the only person with the power to make sure VA lives up to its word.”
Another Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, noted that veterans in his state must wait more than 500 days for the VA to process their disability claims. He urged the president to support legislation he is sponsoring aimed at eliminating the backlog.
“While I am pleased the President recognizes the seriousness of this issue, the time to act is long overdue,” Kirk said in a written statement.
Meanwhile, both the House and the Senate were considering bills to address the backlog and the claims processing system.
Prior to adjourning for summer recess the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs approved a bill that would require VA to submit quarterly reports to Congress on its efforts to eliminate the backlog of benefits claims by 2015.
Another bill under consideration by lawmakers, already passed by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, would establish a commission or task force to study the backlog of claims, including the current process the Secretary of Veterans Affairs uses to evaluate claims and appeals and the laws and regulations applicable to such claims and appeals.
Earlier this summer, the House approved an amendment to a bill that would prohibit the use of funds for more than 75% of the salary of any senior VA official during the period beginning on July 1, 2014, and ending on Sept. 30, 2014, unless as of July 1, 2014, the percentage of disability compensation claims that are more than 125 days old is less than or equal to 40%. In order to become law, the bill would also need to be passed by the Senate.