WASHINGTON — The Veterans Affairs Department is making great strides in its efforts to reduce the backlog of veterans’ claims, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki today told thousands of veterans attending the 92nd Annual American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee.
“We intend to break the back of the backlog this year,” Shinseki said.
The average time taken to process claims in VA is about 160 days. But by the end of the year no claim will take longer than 125 days, Shinseki said. VA doesn’t plan to stop once the claims are processed by that mark, he added.
“Our goal is not an average,” Shinseki said. “It’s not just going to be faster; also better and more accurate. There’s nothing magical about 125 days, especially because when we get there, we’ll be looking at another target.”
VA received more than 1 million claims in 2009 for the first time in the department’s 80-year history. Disability claims for VA increased 75 percent between 2000 and 2010. That’s an average of nearly 100,000 new claims each month, with no signs of slowing down, the secretary said.
VA health care professionals expect to treat and provide care for more than 6.1 million veterans in 2011, Shinseki said, including nearly half-a-million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
In order to meet those veterans’ needs, he said, VA hired more than 3,500 claims workers this year in the Veterans Benefits Administration. VA also invested more than $130 million toward establishing a paperless claims process, which, Shinseki said, will be ready in 2012.
More than $110 million this year, he added, was invested in tele-health technology, which includes technology for the virtual lifetime electronic records system. VA expects to spend $163 million on these programs next year, Shinseki said.
“We see this as the way to link [the Defense Department] and VA in a seamless transition as youngsters take off the uniform,” he said.
Among VA’s accomplishments this year, Shinseki noted improved care for veterans who suffer from Agent Orange- and Gulf War-related illnesses. Three new diseases were determined to be connected to Agent Orange, while nine new diseases were included in the Gulf War illness group, he said.
Congress last year appropriated $13.4 billion to begin benefits payments for some 2,000 veterans expected to claim Agent Orange-related diseases.
“It was the right decision,” Shinseki said, “and the president and I are proud to finally provide this group of veterans, our Vietnam [War] veterans, the care and benefits they’ve long deserved.”
Also, the claims process is now easier for those affected by post-traumatic stress, Shinseki added. Veterans no longer have to provide documentation of the event that may have caused their stress, he said.
“This decision ends decades of focusing on documenting the stressor event,” Shinseki said. “Instead, we’re streamlining the delivery of medical care and benefits for veterans suffering from verifiable PTS from combat.
“This is not a generational issue,” he continued. “This is not Iraq or Afghanistan; it is all who have served in combat.”
VA boosted its staff of mental health providers by 20,000 since Obama took office, Shinseki said.
“Our priority here is to diagnose, treat and cure,” he continued. “If cure is not possible, then diagnose, treat and care will be the standard.”
During his address, Shinseki also noted VA’s work to end homelessness among veterans by 2015. Since 2004, VA has reduced the number of homeless veterans by 90,000. At least 107,000 veterans remain on the streets today.
Shinseki also emphasized the importance of good fiscal stewardship. He highlighted VA’s successes and improvements under President Barack Obama’s administration.
Obama proposed $25 billion in budget increases for the VA since 2009. Such support “underscores the president’s commitment to transforming VA and fixing persistent problems that have plagued this department for decades,” Shinseki said.
The president proposed $125 billion for VA’s fiscal 2011 budget, Shinseki said, which will focus primarily on the ending the claims backlog and homelessness.
“VA must be without hesitation an advocate for veterans,” Shinseki said. “This is part of a culture change that’s under way. We need to make permanent the gains of the past 19 months.
“There will always be unfinished work,” he added. “That’s the nature of the mission, but for all of us, it is to continue to establish priorities, fight for resources and take care of veterans. That’s what we intend to do.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)