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Lawmakers make pre-Memorial Day calls to fix vet claims backlog

May. 23, 2013 - 04:30PM   |  
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In a pre-Memorial Day push to show their concern about the backlog of veterans’ disability claims, House Republicans are calling for an independent task force to recommend a solution while House Democrats pushed the idea of providing temporary benefits to anyone whose claim has been pending before the Veterans Affairs Department for more than 125 days.

Neither idea will become law by Memorial Day, but both are signs that lawmakers share many veterans’ concerns that the mountain of compensation claims is not going away any time soon.

Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, and Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., introduced a bill Thursday creating a 15-member commission or task force to evaluate the claims process.

The mission would be to come up with the most effective means to quickly and accurately resolve all pending claims.

Three commissioners would be appointed by the president, two by the defense secretary, two by the VA secretary and eight by congressional leaders. In addition to the 15 voting members, five nonvoting members would represent veterans service organizations, according to the draft bill.

The group would have a short life. It would be expected to issue a report two months after its first meeting describing the cause of the claims backlog and the level of cooperation the commission is getting from federal agencies. A final report, with recommendations, would be due six months after the first meeting.

“Government bureaucrats under both Republican and Democrat administrations created the backlog, so it’s only natural to solicit outside help from the private sector and the veterans service organizations” to look for a solution, Miller said.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has set a goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015, a promise Miller is not certain can be kept. Part of the purpose of the task force is to “help VA break its claims backlog once and for all in 2015, just as department leaders have promised,” he said.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a 200,000-member organization that has been pushing for faster action as the backlog approaches 1 million claims, supports the legislation.

“It is clear there is no roadmap from the White House to bring the VA backlog to zero,” said Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA’s chief executive officer. “Veterans need a comprehensive, interagency approach to solve the disgraceful backlog.”

Rieckhoff’s comments come after the Obama administration and VA have announced a series of initiatives aimed at speeding claims processing, including mandatory overtime through the end of the fiscal year for employees working on claims, and a six-month campaign to wade through the roughly 250,000 claims that have been pending before VA for one year or more.

Democrats made a largely symbolic gesture on the same day to get the House of Representatives to pass a bill that would require VA to start paying disability compensation to any veteran who has been waiting at least 125 days for an initial claim to be processed.

They tried to use parliamentary procedures to bring the bill, HR 1739, to the House floor for a vote, circumventing regular legislative procedures. The effort failed on a party-line vote, with 224 Republicans opposed and 195 Democrats in favor of suspending rules to bring up the measure.

Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., a retired Air National Guard major general and former Adjutant General of the Illinois National Guard, is the chief sponsor of the bill, which he said is needed because the average wait for a disability claim to be approved is about nine months.

“These are real people, real American heroes, who deserve disability benefits because they sustained injuries in service to our country,” Enyart said. “This is a national embarrassment.”

Veterans waiting for disability pay may have trouble finding or keeping jobs, may be in danger of losing their home or face other financial problems “all because the VA cannot get its act together,” he said. “It is shameful.”

His plan, which is pending before Miller’s committee as one of several bills addressing the claims backlog, would start temporary payments to any veteran who has waited at least 125 days, VA’s processing goal.

The temporary payment, based on the average payment for the claimed disability, would continue until VA makes a final ruling. If VA ended up denying the claim, the veteran would repay the money received only if fraud was involved. If VA assigned a higher rating, the veteran would receive back pay for the difference.

The temporary payment would be a “lifeline to countless veterans who cannot wait months or years for this problem to be solved,” Enyart said.

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