By Joanna Raines
A congressional committee held a contentious two-hour hearing today to tackle one of the most pressing issues facing American veterans -- the persistent backlog in vets' claims that are awaiting a decision.
Currently, there are nearly 900,000 pending claims of more than 125 days. The problem has existed throughout the decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq -- but it has gotten worse in recent years. At today's hearing, both the Bush and Obama administrations came in for their share of criticism.
"There are many people -- myself included -- who are losing patience as we continue to hear the same excuses from the VA about increased workload and complexity of claims," said House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
In Texas, the situation is even worse. Veterans in Houston wait an average of 355 days and veterans in Waco wait 439 days. There are currently 82,170 veterans waiting.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, spoke out at the meeting on behalf of a widow his office worked to help. O'Rourke said he received a phone call from a woman whose husband, a veteran, was terminally ill. They needed help expediting their benefits, but by the time the claim was received he had passed away. The claim was overdue by 450 days.
O'Rourke's constituents were operating with the Waco regional VA office, where 80 percent of all veterans are waiting over 125 days.
During the hearing, lawmakers spent two hours grilling Allison Hickey and Diana Rubens of the Veterans Benefits Administration. The administration officials promised skeptical lawmakers that things are getting better and said they will eliminate the backlog by 2015.
The current average wait time for veterans to receive their promised benefits is 279 days. A Government Accountability Office study found that this number has tripled since 2009, and appeals processing has slowed by 56 percent over the past several years. Some claims are a decade old, making the VBA's 2015 goal for eliminating its backlog appear difficult if not impossible to obtain.
VBA is working to alleviate the situation through training the workforce that processes claims, creating an express lane for those with limited medical conditions, and processing claims electronically. Hickey said she is convinced the 2015 goal will be achieved with these changes.
Despite the promise, members of the House remained dubious.
"I fear that the VA is simply one national mission away from complete collapse and utter failure," Miller said.