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Senators decry VA disability claim delays in Missouri, Illinois

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – In the VA's central region, the Chicago office has the highest and the St. Louis office the fifth-highest percentage of disability claims pending for more than 125 days. VA statistics indicate that nearly 72 percent of the 19,741 claims on file at its St. Louis office -- which handles Misssouri's disability claims -- have been pending for more than 125 days.

More than two-thirds of U.S. senators – including all four representing Missouri and Illinois – are urging the White House to “take direct action” to end the disturbing backlog in processing veterans’ disability claims.

More than 600,000 veterans were stuck in the Department of Veterans Affairs(VA) backlog of disability claims as of last week, with the wait time between filing a claim and a VA decision averaging between 316 and 327 days.

“Veterans returning home from war with serious physical and psychological injuries shouldn’t have to wait for a year for the benefits they’ve earned,” said U.S Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In Illinois, U.S Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., questioned VA Secretary Eric Shinseki about the unusually bad claims backlog in Chicago at a recent hearing. He and U.S.  Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., complained Monday that vets in Illinois face among the nation’s longest wait times for processing disability claims.

The letter that 67 senators sent to President Barack Obama on Monday complained that the number of disability claims pending for more than a year had increased by 2000 percent over the last four years. During that same period, Congress increased the VA’s overall budget by about 40 percent.

“We’ve provided the VA with a sharp and deserved increase in resources since I’ve joined the Senate,” McCaskill said a statement. “And those resources should be brought to bear solving this problem.”

U.S Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., also on the Armed Services Committee, joined McCaskill, Kirk and Durbin in signing the letter to the White House. “Solving this problem is critical for veterans of all generations,” the senators wrote. “We need direct and public involvement from you to establish a clear plan to end the backlog once and for all.”

A week ago, VA officials announced that they would try to ease the backlog by moving vets who’ve been waiting more than a year to the front of the line. The VA has said that about 250,000 pending claims are from vets who have been waiting a year or more.

Under the new program, VA claims raters will make provisional decisions on the oldest claims, which will allow eligible vets to start collecting compensation benefits more quickly.

“Too many veterans wait too long for a decision, and this has never been acceptable,” Shinseki said. “That is why we are implementing an aggressive plan to eliminate the backlog in 2015.”

Veterans can learn more about disability benefits on the VA-Pentagon benefits web portal. While compensation claims are pending, eligible vets are able to receive health care and other benefits from the VA. (More than half of returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets now use VA health, for which they are eligible for five years after their service.)

VA statistics indicate that several offices have among the longest backlogs in processing claims. For example, the Chicago Regional Office – which processes claims for all Illinois veterans – is the fourth most backlogged processing center in the country. According to Kirk and Durbin, more than 82 percent of the state’s 20,000 claims have been pending for more than 125 days.

Average delays in Missouri are nearly as long. According to a "Compensation Inventory" provided to the Beacon, 71.9 percent of the 19,741 claims on file at the VA's St. Louis office -- which handles all of Misssouri's disability claims -- have been pending for more than 125 days.

In the VA's 14-office central region, the highest percentages of delays are in the offices in Chicago (82.9 percent); Waco, Tex., (78 percent); New Orleans (75.4 percent); and Houston (73.9 percent), with St. Louis fifth-worst at 71.9 percent. 

This spring, the Center for Investigative Reporting reported that the VA has failed to cut the backlog despite pressure from Congress and the public. While the VA has spent about $537 million over four years on a new computer system, the CIR reported, 97 percent of all veterans’ claims remain on paper.

Paul Rieckhoff, who heads the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called the backlog “a national embarrassment” and demanded White House action.

“The claims backlog fiasco has gone on for over 10 years and is only getting worse,” Rieckhoff said in a statement. “Disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans should not have to wait until 2015 to receive the financial and health support they depend on.”

The CIR reported that the average time it takes to resolve a VA disability claim has grown significantly over the last few years, as the number of disability claims has increased. VA officials say that – in addition to the growth in claims that followed the downsizing of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan – another reason for the backlog was a 2010 decision that made it simpler for some Vietnam vets to qualify for compensation related to Agent Orange.

On Monday, the VA announced that it is withholding bonuses for senior officials who oversee disability claims because they failed to meet goals for cutting the backlog. A spokesman said the savings from the bonus cuts would be used in a way that aims to help reduce the waiting times. The bonus cutbacks involve only senior officials at the Veterans Benefits Administration, a part of the VA.

Senators oppose possible Fort Leonard Wood change

In another bipartisan Senate effort, Blunt and McCaskill sent a letter Monday to Army Secretary John McHugh expressing their concerns about a potential plan to reconfigure the Army’s brigade combat teams at Fort Leonard Wood in south-central Missouri.

Army officials planned a “community listening session” today at the base to discuss the tentative “2020 Force Restructure” plan, which could reduce the number of soldiers at Leonard Wood and other Army bases over the next few years.

The Missouri base is home to the 4th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (MEB) – which includes combat-ready engineers and military police battalions – as well as three Army training schools: the Chemical, Biological, Radiation, Nuclear (CBRN) School, the Engineer School and the Military Police School. Locating those units at Fort Leonard Wood was a 2005 decision.

“The co-stationing of FORSCOM maneuver units with TRADOC schools has been a source of major success because it allows soldiers and their families to remain at Fort Leonard Wood for a longer time without an adverse impact on their careers or their value to the Army,” Blunt and McCaskill wrote.

“In addition, this career predictability lowers the propensity for spousal relationship problems and other stress-related instances that take place on the installation. For these reasons, we strongly suggest that the Army continue to co-station TRADOC schools and FORSCOM operational units together to enhance Army readiness and combat effectiveness.”

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.