For many injured veterans — aging former soldiers as well as younger ones recently back from Iraq and Afghanistan — disability claims are a vital and necessary source of income. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), however, has long failed to process claims in a timely manner, forcing many vets to wait an average of six months for their claim to be processed, and as long as two years to wait for an appeal. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported a growing backlog of claims and lengthy processing times in 2001, and the problem has persisted. By February 2007, the backlog had grown to almost 400,000 — more than 130,000 of which had exceeded the VA’s 160-day goal to process a claim. This is due in part to the growing number of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan filing disability claims — total claims have jumped from about 579,000 in 2000 to some 806,000 in 2006, a 39 percent increase. The Senate unanimously passed a measure in 2007 to provide the VA with $70.3 million to eliminate the backlog of disability claims by hiring new processors and implementing better staff training. But increasing the number of processors on staff did not immediately solve the crisis. The GAO says that increased numbers must be paired with “adequate training and performance management” in order to issue timely and accurate decisions. Daniel Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has called for better technology, improved employee training, and an enhanced claims process to end the long delays. Until the problems are fixed, the persistent delays mean that tens of thousands of veterans and their families will continue to struggle financially. The VA press office did not respond to a request for comment, but Patrick Dunne, the department’s acting under secretary for benefits, told Congress in July 2008 that the department is “continually seeking new ways to increase production and shorten the time veterans are waiting for decisions on their claims,” which include “longer-term efforts to enhance and upgrade our claims processing systems through integration of today’s technology.”
The Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 looks to address the backlog by using electronic filing and processing. The bill also outlines two pilot programs — one to offer expedited treatment to veterans who had the help of a veterans service officer in filing a claim, the second to give processors and veterans a checklist to improve organization and uniformity when submitting claims. The effects of this bill have yet to be truly seen.
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