Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Pennsylvania Democrat Casey, Nevada Republican Heller Form Working Group To Clear VA Benefits Backlog

July 12, 2013

By: Sean D. Hamill

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has made some progress over the last year in reducing the still-massive backlog of pending disability claims.

But U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., think the VA can do better, and maybe they, additional senators and veterans organizations can help come up with solutions that could eliminate the backlog.

Together, on Thursday, the senators announced they are forming a working group that will focus its energy on this one singular, beguiling problem that has plagued the VA for the past 20 years — a problem that currently affects 523,000 veterans who have been waiting on a disability claim for longer than 125 days.

They plan on issuing an “idea report” with proposals that could be turned into legislative action this coming fall.

VA spokesman Mark Ballesteros, in a statement, said: “VA welcomes and appreciates the interest from Members of Congress, Veteran Service Organizations and other veterans advocates in working together to ensure that all Veterans and their families receive benefits in a timely and accurate manner.”

Reducing the number of backlogged claims nationally should be a priority for the federal government, Mr. Casey said in a telephone conference call with reporters, because “it’s one small measure of gratitude for those who served or sacrificed.”

The 523,000 backlogged claims is out of nearly 800,000 total claims, and means that about 65 percent of veterans who are in some way disabled and in need of financial help have been waiting for more than four months to receive compensation.

That is an unacceptable figure, Mr. Heller said, and by forming the working group, “we want to get to the bottom of this.”

In the Pittsburgh region, the claims issue is much worse than the national average, with 10,278 total claims pending in Pittsburgh, of which 7,801 — or nearly 76 percent — have been pending for more than 125 days.

The senators’ working group will consist, at least initially, of the two senators’ staffs, as well as national veterans’ organizations such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Disabled American Veterans, they said.

Why are veterans’ organizations willing to support this effort when others — from blue ribbon panels and Congressional hearings — have failed?

“Anytime you can get bipartisan support in Congress, it’s a good thing,” said Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans. “And it’s not going to hurt to sit down and talk about these issues.”

Mr. Violante and Alex Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Mr. Casey and Mr. Heller have demonstrated a willingness to put time into this one issue crucial to veterans.

It was Mr. Nicholson’s organization that asked Mr. Casey and Mr. Heller this past spring to help them line up other senators to co-sign a letter to President Barack Obama in April asking him to push the VA to solve the backlog problem.

That letter, which Mr. Casey and Mr. Heller persuaded 65 other senators — 35 Democrats and 32 Republicans — to co-sign, went to the president in April.

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