More than two-thirds of the U.S. Senate sent a letter to President Obama Monday urging his “direct and public involvement” to end the Veterans Affairs Department’s disability claims backlog.
The letter, co-authored by Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., and signed by a bipartisan group of another 65 Senators, said, “In the past four years, the number of claims pending for over year has grown by over 2,000 percent despite a 40 percent increase in the VA budget.” The letter pointed out that “during this same time period, Congress has given the VA everything it has asked for in terms of more funding and more employees; however this has not eliminated the backlog of claims.”
Also on Monday, VA reported it had 882,023 backlogged claims with 610,150 or 69.2 percent backlogged more than 125 days. VA had 719,713 claims pending as of April 27, 2009, with 147,293 pending more than 180 days.
The Senate letter to Obama said the average wait time for approval of first time disability claims ranges between 316 and 327 days, adding that in some cities waits are double the national average. First time claims take 681 days in Reno, Nev.; 642 days in New York City; 625 days in Pittsburgh; 619 days Los Angeles; 612 days in Indianapolis; 586 days in Houston; and 510 days in Philadelphia, the letter said.
“In the worst cases, veterans have waited and continue to wait 800 days, 900 days and even 1,000 days for a disability claims decision from the VA," the letter said.
“Solving this problem is critical for veterans of all generations,” the senators told Obama. “We need direct and public involvement from you to establish a clear plan to end the backlog for one and for all.”
The letter concluded, “We respectfully ask you and your administration to ensure that no veterans are stuck in the VA back log.”
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has repeatedly said that the department’s paperless claims processing system, the Veterans Benefits Management System, is key to eliminating the claims backlog by 2015.
Stephen Warren, the department’s acting Chief Information Officer said last Thursday that VBMS will be installed in 41 out of 57 regional office this week and VA remains on schedule to fully deploy VBMS by the end of 2013. The department spent $382 million on VBMS from 2011 through 2013 and requested $155 million more for it in 2014, as well as another $136 million to scan and digitize paper records into the system.
The Senate letter is just the latest in a series of high-profile criticisms charging that VA has mismanaged the claims backlog. On March 20, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, called on Allison Hickey, the Veterans Affairs Department’s undersecretary for benefits, to resign due to the growing backlog of disability claims.
In March Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members joined the assault on the backlog during their annual “Storm the Hill” campaign, generating a publicity blitz with coverage by the Associated Press, Reuters, NBC, CNN and The Washington Post. Comedian Jon Stewart skewered the backlog on the April 4 edition of his Daily Show, illustrating the situation with clips of a paper filing system in the Veterans Benefits Administration office in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The Senate sent its letter to Obama as VA continues to hemorrhage top level talent. The department announced on Monday that Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould -- responsible for department management -- has resigned, effective May 17.
The White House has not responded to the Senate letter. On March 19, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the VA claims backlog “issue is of enormous concern to the president.” Carney added, “it is absolutely the president’s position that we need to aggressively address this problem, and he has made clear to Secretary Shinseki that he wants this addressed.”