Senators Want Investigation, Overhaul of VA Claims Backlog Processing

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., says veterans face an unacceptable amount of red tape when applying for benefits. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., says veterans face an unacceptable amount of red tape when applying for benefits. Cathleen Allison/Associated Press

A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday called for an independent probe of how the Veterans Affairs Department is handling the backlog of veterans’ disability claims and introduced legislation that would overhaul the process for adjudicating them.

“The red tape our veterans face is unacceptable,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who co-chairs the chamber’s VA Backlog Working Group with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. The group released a report on Wednesday noting that 56 VA regional offices are coping with 461,000 claims, about 188,000 of which have been pending for more than 125 days.

Wait times vary widely across the country, from an average of 60 days in Providence, R.I., to an average of 281 days in Baltimore. To understand the discrepancies in processing claims, the lawmakers have called for the Government Accountability Office to conduct a nationwide investigation and identify ways to improve the system.

VA has struggled for decades with the claims process, much of which remains paper based. Countless investigations and blue ribbon panels have pointed to a number of factors, including antiquated information technology systems, the difficulties associated with accessing Defense Department records, changes in the laws governing veterans benefits and a surge in veterans seeking benefits as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Senate report notes that despite periodic bouts of progress in reducing the backlog, serious problems persist, as illustrated in the following chart, included in the report:  

The 10 worst regional centers for claims processing noted in the report are:

  1. Baltimore (281 days)
  2. Jackson, Miss. (271)
  3. Reno, Nev. (258)
  4. Philadelphia (250
  5. Los Angeles (245)
  6. Chicago (244)
  7. Oakland, Calif. (241)
  8. Indianapolis (237)
  9. Boston (235)
  10. St. Petersburg, Fla. (231)

Besides Heller and Casey, other senators in the working group include Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; Joe Manchin, D-W.V.; Pat Toomey, R-Pa.; Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.; David Vitter, R-La.; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; and Susan Collins, R-Maine.

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