Past 4 Years: VA Budget Up 40 Percent, Yearlong Pending Claims Up 2,000 Percent

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are getting frustrated about President Obama's apparent lack of urgency in speeding up the claims process for veterans waiting nearly a year on average to get processed by the VA.

Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) today sent Obama a letter asking the president to take "direct action and involvement" in ending the backlog in which more than 600,000 veterans are stuck.

Sixty-five other senators joined on to the plea for the president to get things moving.

While the average wait time for first-time disability claims currently ranges between 316 and 327 days, veterans in certain parts of the country are waiting even longer – 681 days in Reno, 642 in New York, 625 in Pittsburgh, 619 in Los Angeles, 612 in Indianapolis, 586 in Houston, and 510 in Philadelphia, the senators noted.

Some vets have been forced to wait more than 1,000 days. More than half of the total backlog consists of Vietnam and Gulf War veterans.

Over Obama's first term, the Department of Veterans Affairs budget increased 40 percent but the number of claims pending for more than a year jumped by more than 2,000 percent.

"As a reminder, during this same time period, Congress has given VA everything it has asked for in terms of more funding and more employees; however, this has not eliminated the backlog of claims," the senators wrote. "Solving this problem is critical for veterans of all generations. We need direct and public involvement from you to establish a clear plan to end the backlog once and for all."

"This country must be grateful for the safe homecoming of every single man and woman who has served in harm’s way. Our joy at their return must be reflected in our commitment to helping all who have served."

Toomey said the VA's two regional offices in his home state are mired in more than 23,000 unprocessed claims.

"This is unacceptable," the senator said. "Moreover, once a disability claim is considered it can take almost a year to get a resolution."

The problem has evoked cries from Capitol Hill for weeks now.

In addition to the backlog, the VA’s accuracy rate of 86 percent in settling claims has raised the alarm at the GAO and with the department’s own inspector general, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said at a March hearing.

“It is my view, and I believe the view of every member of this committee, that when men and women put their lives on the line defending this country, they must be treated with respect and dignity when they return," he said. "Not with red tape and bureaucracy, not with, in some cases, years of delay."

Sanders even suggested that the VA’s treatment of veterans could be contributing to an even deeper tragedy.

“Without being overly dramatic, let me state that we are losing 22 veterans every day from suicide. This is a tragedy that we must address," the senator said. "I know that no one in the VA, no one on this committee, wants to add to that tragedy, because of unnecessary delays that could extenuate the problems that veterans express."

At a hearing last week on VA outreach, Sanders bawled out the department for not even meeting its responsibilities with Congress, nevertheless veterans.

"It is completely unacceptable with the vast resources of the VA that they were incapable of submitting their testimony to this committee on time," Sanders said before his opening statement. "It is disrespectful for us to do our job of oversight. We, by rule, are supposed to be receiving testimony in a way that we can absorb it and learn from it. Testimony came in late. This is the second time since I've been chair that this has happened. And I just want to make the VA aware that this is not going to continue."

Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) chimed in to say he's got Sanders' back.

"Whatever the chairman chooses to do I will back him fully," Burr said. "I think that the committee deserves better from the VA and pledge to the chairman to work in whatever fashion to make sure that this practice -- and I say practice because it is not an isolated incident -- stops."

Veterans Affairs announced on April 19 "an initiative to expedite compensation claims decisions for veterans who have waited one year or longer."

That involves making a provisional decision on the oldest claims while allowing a one-year safety net period for veterans to submit additional information to weigh as evidence and not losing their appeal rights.

Priority processing continues for wounded Iraq and Afghanistan vets, former POWs and Medal of Honor recipients, and those who are homeless or terminally ill, the VA said.

Last week, a bipartisan group from the House Veterans Affairs Committee introduced the Veterans Administration (VA) Claims Efficiency through Information Act of 2013 to amend U.S. Code and make publicly available certain information about pending and completed claims. The VA would have to update the information, consisting of claims pending and average waits times by region and by medical condition, on a weekly basis.

“We must ensure that our veterans receive adequate and timely assistance by putting pressure on the VA to get this backlog under control,” said sponsor Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Calif.). “After serving our country, too many veterans still wait too long for a decision on their disability compensation claims. This legislation will require more accountability from the VA by tracking the time spent evaluating each type of medical condition in a veteran’s disability claim: one of the biggest contributors to the claims backlog.”

A month ago, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee implored Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “as a veteran yourself,” to jump in and help clear the backlog of claims.

Sanders and Burr noted the recent agreement between the Pentagon and VA “to speed the delivery of evidence necessary for the adjudication of compensation claims.”

“We request that you ensure DoD makes smart investments in the resources and manpower necessary to expedite the transition from paper to electronic records transfer,” they wrote in a letter signed by all members of the committee. “We would also request that the DoD work closely with VA to ensure that Guard and Reserve records are included in this process.”

The letter highlighted “the absolute need for continued collaboration, cooperation and commitment between these two agencies.”