Heller: Nevada veterans have longest wait for VA benefits

Nevada veterans wait longer than any in the nation to have disability benefits claims completed, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller said at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.

The Nevada Republican said some 4,000 veterans in Las Vegas, Reno and across Nevada have waited more than the VA’s target deadline of 125 days for their claims to be finalized.

“On average, Nevada veterans waited 433 days to have their claims completed,” he said at the hearing in Washington, D.C. “This is the longest wait in the nation and it is simply unacceptable.”

Allison Hickey, undersecretary of veterans affairs for benefits, fielded questions from Heller. She admitted there was a problem at the VA Reno regional office but noted the claims backlog is down by more than 57 percent from a year ago and that the age of claims remaining in the inventory is nearly 195 days younger than in was in December 2012.

Heller pressed Hickey on why the Reno office continues to rank among the worst in the nation for processing claims.

“This was not always a challenge for the Reno office. In fact they have had times where they are on the top of the list,” she noted. “But they did have a growth of claims at a time where they had some vacant positions in the workforce.”

The VA experienced a surge in claims when additional diseases linked to exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War were recognized by the VA. That prompted 260,000 veterans to file new claims in October 2010, on top of veterans who filed claims from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The workforce problem was also compounded by retirements.

“Between those kinds of numbers, when you’re a very small regional office as Reno is, you see the impact pretty quickly,” Hickey said.

The 4,000 Nevada veterans waiting more than 125 days for completion of their claims is an increase since early November when 3,255 — 56 percent of 5,813 claims — had been pending 125 days or longer.

Meanwhile, the Reno VA regional benefits office has also been slow in answering a Nov. 8 query from the Review-Journal about how many claims from the reduced backlog this year were denied, and how many claims the Reno office sent to out-of-state VA offices for processing are not accounted for in the backlog.

According to Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who is the ranking member of the House VA Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, the Reno office this year completed 91 percent of the claims that had been pending for a year or more. As of Nov. 30, there were 372 claims still pending for one year or more.

“Over the past year, I have been extremely disappointed with the performance of the Reno Regional Office, and held a hearing in Las Vegas to explore this issue more in depth,” Titus said in a statement Wednesday. “To follow up on my field hearing, I will be asking the VA for a year-end performance report on the Reno Regional Office, as well as a detailed breakdown as to how they will meet the VA’s goals for next year.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Follow him on Twitter @KeithRogers2.