Chairs of the VA Backlog Working Group, U.S. Senators Dean Heller (R-NV) and Bob Casey (D-PA), along with Senators David Vitter (R-LA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), released the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, comprehensive legislation designed to reduce the backlog of veterans' disability claims. The Senators also released the VA Backlog Working Group March 2014 Report in which the VA Backlog Working Group analyzes the many factors that contribute to the claims backlog.
"Despite sincere efforts from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Administration, and Democrats and Republicans to address the issue, the veterans' claims backlog continues to be a very real and very big problem. The VA must modernize a 1945 process for the 21st century veteran. This legislation aims to provide new, wide-ranging and bipartisan ideas that can be passed immediately in order to relieve the backlog and speed up the claims process," said Senator Dean Heller.
"The backlog has been a persistent and inexcusable problem," said Senator Casey. "Our Nation's heroes shouldn't have to wait for months or more for their claims to be addressed. It is unacceptable that some veterans in Pennsylvania have waited a year or longer to get their disability claims processed, such as 345 days in Pittsburgh and 309 days in Philadelphia. Veterans deserve a comprehensive and permanent solution to this problem, and our hope is that this legislation will ensure we reach that goal," said Senator Bob Casey.
Senators Vitter, Tester, Heinrich and Moran are cosponsors of the bill.
"Backlogs and bureaucratic delays have unfortunately become the status quo at the VA," Senator David Vitter said. "Literally every day my office works with veterans across Louisiana to make sure they are eligible and have access to their full benefits, but the backlog highlighted in our report is ridiculous. Our legislation will help cut through the red tape and help veterans receive the benefits they deserve."
"The VA is taking steps to reduce the claims backlog, but we cannot take our eye off the ball," said Senator Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "Veterans must get the benefits they earned in a timely and efficient manner, and our bill lays out clear guidelines and much-needed transparency to make sure the VA and Defense Department work together to speed up the claims process. Ensuring veterans get the support and care they earned is a top priority, and I will keep the heat on the VA to eliminate the backlog as quickly as possible."
"Too many veterans in New Mexico and across the country are waiting far too long to receive their earned benefits. This bipartisan proposal, which has overwhelming support from veterans' organizations, helps the VA achieve its goal to eliminate the backlog by 2015. Whether accelerating the initial claims submission process, improving management structures at VA offices, or making the claims backlog a government-wide priority, this bill offers commonsense solutions to ensure every veteran receives their earned benefits without delay. Few sacrifices are as selfless as those our military service men and women make in defense of our country. We owe them more than a debt of gratitude -- we owe them action in both our words and deeds," said Senator Martin Heinrich.
"I continue to hear horror stories from Kansans and Veteran Service Organizations about the VA claims process, from systemic issues with the back-and-forth of how claims are handled, to the absurd 9 to 18 month waiting game. We know our veterans deserve better; they deserve the best our nation has to offer. I'm proud to be a part of the VA Claims Backlog Working Group, a thoughtful effort to take clear and decisive action. The common-sense solutions we offer in the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act are overwhelmingly supported by Veteran Service Organizations, who know this issue inside and out. The Senate now has a set of concrete solutions that deserves a vote and that the VA should adopt to make real and meaningful change," said Senator Jerry Moran.
The report and legislation were embraced by several Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), including The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). These organizations have provided the Working Group with invaluable input.
"The 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act is a practical, common sense blueprint to help veterans get their earned benefits more quickly. The bill will help reduce the VA claims backlog, improve reporting and transparency, foster quality outcomes and further cooperation of other Federal agencies with the VA on veterans claims," said VADM Norb Ryan, USN-ret., President of the Military Officers Association of America. "We are particularly pleased that Sen. Heller's office worked closely with service organizations including MOAA to craft the recommendations in the bill."
"While we applaud the progress VA has made over the past year in reducing the backlog, there remains a need for continued oversight and innovation to reform the claims processing system. We commend the VA Backlog Working Group, led by Senators Heller and Casey, for working in a bipartisan manner to develop realistic, commonsense proposals to support VA's ongoing efforts. We look forward to continuing to work with them, Chairman Sanders and Ranking Member Burr to reach our shared goal of having every veteran's claim decided right the first time," said Garry J. Augustine, DAV Washington Executive Director.
"The American Legion thanks Senator Heller and the VA Backlog Working Group for their leadership in finding solutions to tackle the VA claims backlog. It is especially important that the working group reached out to the veteran stakeholders from the very beginning. With more than 2,900 accredited representatives working nationwide to help veterans receive their earned benefits, the Legion has gained valuable insight into the claims process that can help to find solutions that will work," said Lou Celli, Legislative Director of The American Legion.
IAVA also offered a statement of support, saying, "In the past year, the VA has made important strides in addressing and reducing the disability claims backlog. But, with over 375,000 veterans still stuck in the backlog, additional attention and legislation is critical to not only accomplishing the goal of backlog zero, but making sure a VA claims backlog never becomes an issue again. IAVA applauds Senator Heller's commitment to helping the VA successfully meet the needs of our country's veterans, and supports the provisions within this legislation which will help establish a sustainable disability claims process."
"The VFW thanks Senator Heller for his work in outlining the complexity of VA's disability claims backlog and for providing matter-of-fact solutions to improve the quality and timeliness of claims," said Bob Wallace, executive director of the VFW. "Senator Heller listened to our concerns and we look forward to working with him to make these recommendations a reality."
Additionally, the American Federation of Government Employees offered its support to the VA Backlog Working Group and the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, saying, "We are pleased with many of the proposals in this report, such as additional accountability for how management reports on veterans' cases, and look forward to continuing to work with the Backlog Working Group to serve our nation's vets."
In July, Senators Heller and Casey announced the formation of the VA Backlog Working Group. The Working Group provides a forum for lawmakers, veterans, and VSOs to tackle the disability claim backlog. The March 2014 Report is a product of input from these groups, and provides a broad guideline for areas of improvement that can help shape a more efficient system.
Details of the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act:
Whereas the VA Backlog Working Group March 2014 Report identifies problems in current processes, the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act aims to provide a comprehensive solution. The bill is divided into three sections:
Title I -- Benefits Claims Submission. This section is designed to encourage, assist, and educate veterans on the benefits of submitting a completed claim, when possible, as well as reinforce the services available to help a veteran complete a claim.
Includes proposals to improve veterans' access to information about the claims process;
Provides Veterans Service Organizations and veterans' preferred secondary contact with better access to information;
Authorizes monetary benefits to incentivize developed claims submission.
Title II - Reforming Practices of Regional Offices. Personnel and management must be given tools to perform efficiently. This section requires the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to make structural changes that increase accuracy and efficiency at the regional office level in the following ways:
Calls for audit of regional offices of the Veterans Benefits Administration;
Ensures improved accountability and oversight of VARO management;
Provides resources to VBA employees and implements changes in process that allows VBA employees to move claims through the electronic benefits awards structure more efficiently;
Improves transparency to the public on the size and scope of the current backlog.
Title III - Government Response. This section holds the government accountable and helps to ensure the claims process is a priority.
Demands greater cooperation from federal agencies to transfer requested information;
Presses VBA employees to process information it receives from these agencies in a timely fashion.
PDF copies of the VA Backlog March 2014 Report and the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act are below.