Tonight, the House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens) that seeks to eliminate the massive backlog of disability claims which forces veterans in Queens and the rest of New York to wait a staggering average of nearly 361.8 days -- nearly a whole year -- to receive their benefits, one of the longest wait times in the entire country.
The VA Regional Office Accountability Act, which Meng introduced last May, was approved as part of broader legislation (H.R. 2189) that aims to improve the processing of disability claims by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The approval of Meng's bill marks the third time since January that the House passed bipartisan legislation introduced by the freshman Congresswoman. The first was a measure approved February -- six weeks after she was sworn into Congress -- that makes houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy eligible for federal disaster aid, and the second was legislation passed last month that in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Benghazi, aims to better protect the lives of American diplomats serving overseas.
"Finally, we are one step closer towards reducing the disgraceful backlog that has forced disabled veterans to wait way too long for the critical benefits they require," said Meng. I thank my colleagues in the House for approving this critical legislation, and for joining me in demanding that we do what's right for the brave men and women who sacrificed so much for our county. We expect that with the passage of this bill, the inexcusable delays that our veterans have been forced to endure will soon be a thing of the past."
As of October 19th, more than 717,000 veterans have disability claims waiting to be processed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), nearly 411,562 of which exceed the department's processing goal of 125 days. Nationwide, the average time for the VA to process claims is an astounding 312 days. However in Queens, and the rest of New York, the average wait time is a stunning 361.8 days, among the slowest in the nation for benefit claims.
In addition, nearly 12 percent of the claims processed by the New York regional VA office contain errors, significantly higher than the VA's target error rate of just two percent.
Disability benefits include critical care for everything including major combat injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and Agent Orange exposure.
Meng's measure requires annual reports on VA regional offices that fail to meet the VA's target of processing claims within 125 days with 98% accuracy. The reports would help speed up benefits because they would allow Congress and the VA to better understand the challenges that prevent these regional offices from reaching their goals, and they would propose solutions on how to rectify the problem.
The reports would be required to explain why the office did not meet the goal, what resources it needs to meet it, and how the failure to meet the goal affected the performance evaluation of the office director.
The New York VA regional office, located in downtown Manhattan, is one of 58 regional VA offices across the country that provides benefits and services to veterans and their dependents. The New York facility serves approximately 608,000 veterans throughout Queens and New York City, Long Island and New York State.
The backlog in claims is attributed to several factors including an increase in veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, extending additional benefits to Vietnam-era veterans, a lack of adequate staffing and an antiquated claim system that is not computerized.
The legislation is supported by the American Legion and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.