In Las Vegas, Heller hears veterans’ complaints about disability benefits backlog

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller on Monday heard complaints from veterans about the long backlog of disability benefits requests that have former members of the military waiting months and even years for a check.

The Reno office has the worst backlog among regional Veterans Affairs offices, said Heller, R-Nev. He has introduced legislation to speed things up.

“I think it’s important” to fix the backlog, Heller said, noting it takes about an average of at least 350 days for the Reno office to process a claim. “We’re the worst,” he said. “For the veterans who need help … right away, they’re not getting it … It takes so long for their claims to be processed.”

Home for Easter break, Heller met privately in Las Vegas with about two dozen representatives of veterans organizations and the new director of the new VA hospital in North Las Vegas, Isabel Duff, he said.

Heller made his comments after emerging from the nearly two-hour meeting. He said another issue that came up was the costly expansion of the emergency room at the new hospital, which opened in 2012 at a total cost of about $1 billion dollars, including the building, equipment and other costs. The ER is adding 14 beds for a total of 25 at a cost of $16 million.

“It’s got growing pains, but the veterans do appreciate there’s a hospital here,” Heller said.

Transportation is another matter veterans brought up because the hospital is at the far edge of North Las Vegas. Heller said a shuttle system could help veterans get to the facility.

Mitch Roach of the American Legion, who was among those who met with Heller, brought a long list of problems with the VA system.

He also objected to budget cuts which apparently went into effect during the budget fight that led to a government shutdown and automatic cuts in some veterans programs.

“Our troops can’t afford to lose any more money,” Roach said. “The backlog is our main concern, but it seems that too many times budget cuts fall on the backs of veterans.”

Heller’s meeting comes more than a month after he and five other senators proposed a bipartisan bill in Congress aimed at streamlining veterans benefit claims to whittle down the huge backlog.

The VA has failed to settle 59 percent of disability claims that have been pending longer than the agency’s goal of 125 days, leading to months- and years-long waits for veterans on decisions they say can devastate them financially and emotionally.

According to the agency’s latest weekly workload report, 686,861 disability claims were pending, with 403,761, or 59 percent, unsettled longer than the VA’s 125-day goal.

“This backlog in my opinion is tantamount to breaking our promises to our nation’s veterans and must come to an end soon,” Heller said when he introduced the legislation after forming a “VA claims backlog working group” last summer with Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., another sponsor of the bill.

Other bill sponsors are Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and David Vitter, R-La.

A 45-page report by the Senate group provided the basis for the legislation. It noted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and decisions by VA leaders broadened the types of illnesses qualifying veterans for federal assistance.

At the same time, though, the VA has struggled to keep up.

Between 2005 and 2012 the agency increased its full-time employees in a bid to manage an increase in claims, with little improvement, according to the report. It said, “The average days to complete claims increased from 177 days in 2006 to 262 days in 2012 per full-time employee.”

Performance by VA regional claims offices has varied widely. The office in Providence, R.I., completed claims in an average of 97.2 days, but the Reno office ranked as the slowest at 425.9 days. The Reno office serves the entire state of Nevada.

“Unless the claims process is reformed, the VA will not only continue to develop backlogs but it will also never fully eliminate them,” the senators said.

The new legislation contains a suite of changes to VA processes that aim to move claims more efficiently, including speeding the transition to an electronic benefits management system. It would require the Department of Defense, Social Security Administration and other departments to respond to requests for veterans’ records within 30 days, alleviating a major choke point that has taken 157 days on average, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.