The huge number of disability claims pending before the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is unacceptable, Rep. Julia Brownley said Thursday, and more must be done to help the agency reach its goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015.
"The fact that there are so many claims that are taking well over 125 days is just unacceptable," the Oak Park Democrat said. "And that is on average. In some locations across the country, it can be over a year."
Brownley and other members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee are introducing a package of bills that they hope will help the VA eliminate the backlog. Brownley said the legislation, if approved, would streamline the review process and help the VA do a better job of meeting the needs of veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We need to be ready when they come home," she said.
Nearly 900,000 claims from sick or injured veterans are pending before the VA, and more than 600,000 of them have been in the system for more than 125 days.
Last month, the agency announced plans to process within the next six months some 250,000 claims that are a year old or older. The VA also has set a goal of eliminating the backlog of claims by 2015, although some lawmakers are skeptical the agency will be able to reach that target.
The series of 10 bills sponsored by Brownley and other lawmakers seeks to get veterans' claims and compensation settled much faster.
One of the pieces of legislation requires the Defense Department to provide electronic records to the VA within 21 days, which would substantially reduce the amount of time waiting for such records. Another bill would set up a pilot program that would focus on adjudicating the most difficult medical conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Other bills would require the VA to pay for medical conditions as they are adjudicated instead of waiting until all medical conditions within a claim are fully reviewed; encourage the automation of certain VA claims; and require the VA to track all information requests to other federal entities.
When a veteran submits a credible medical opinion from his or her private physician, the VA would be required to accept that evidence for evaluation purposes instead of requesting its own medical exam. Regional VA offices that fail to meet their backlog reduction goals would have to submit annual reports explaining what they did to attain the goal and why they failed to reach it.
Brownley said she is still collecting data on how the backlog is impacting veterans in Ventura County. But anecdotal evidence suggests it is a problem that is frustrating local veterans, she said.
"In the district, we have veterans calling our offices all the time, and we're trying to help facilitate their issues," she said. "But I have to be honest with you, when our office gets calls, it's very difficult to expedite an issue. And I think once you pull a veteran's claim out of the process, if you do that, then there is a chance they go back to the back of the line. It has been difficult at the district level to be as helpful as we would like to be."