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The ability of the Veterans Affairs Department to reduce its expanding backlog of benefits claims rests with electronic records, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Tuesday.
In an address to the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans' group, Shinseki repeated the Obama administration's goal of eliminating the benefits claims backlog in 2015.
"We intend to process claims in less than 125 days at 98 percent accuracy," he said, "and to end the backlog in claims that has built up over decades."
As he spoke, VA had about 897,700 pending claims, including about 627,700 that have been in processing for more than 125 days — the department's goal for maximum processing time.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, said reducing the backlog will surely not happen this year. VA expects to process about 1 million claims this year, Sanders' said in an address to the Legion before Shinseki spoke, but will receive about 1.2 million, so the backlog will grow by about 200,000.
"I am deeply troubled by the growth and the persistence of the claims backlog," Sanders said, expressing concern that the "overwhelmed, broken claims system" is not prepared for the arrival of new veterans as combat troops return home from Afghanistan.
"As we wind down our commitments overseas, VA's claim workload will only increase in coming years," he said. "A broken claims system not only jeopardizes the welfare of those veterans receiving benefits, but discourages those looking for help from reaching out in the first place."
He pledged "aggressive" oversight by his committee to push for a faster solution.
Shinseki said a good deal of the claims process hinges on things outside of VA's control. "If it takes 265 days to process a disability claim, 200 of those days are usually spent awaiting information from the IRS, DoD, the Social Security Administration" or veterans themselves, he said.
He acknowledged that VA is hardly blameless. "VA is not without its own warts. The remaining 65 processing days could be more efficient," he said. "We must automate, and get out of paper. We are in the process of doing that."