VA chief touts promises kept to blinded veterans

From getting the $600 million Veterans Affairs medical center built in North Las Vegas to reducing the nation's backlog of veterans disability claims, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said Wednesday that he is determined to meet the goals he set when he was appointed more than two years ago.

"We will open a new Las Vegas VA medical center next year," Shinseki, a former general and Army chief of staff, told more than 300 members of the Blinded Veterans Association during its national convention at the Golden Nugget.

The medical complex is slated to be one of the crown jewels of the VA system, a 90-bed hospital, a 140-bed nursing home, a mental health facility, outpatient clinic and a power plant with solar capability.

After construction is completed in December, it will take another six months to equip, staff and certify the facility on 147 acres of federal land at Pecos Road and the Las Vegas Beltway.

After construction, the long-awaited project will generate an estimated $1.2 billion in economic impact in the next five years, Shinseki said, with its 1,850 medical jobs, including 450 new positions, at an average salary of $108,000 including benefits.

"So it's going to be an economic impact to the area."

Blinded veterans with white canes and service dogs applauded Shinseki when he said he took to heart complaints the VA claims process was difficult to navigate.

"Some said nearly impossible. Even some suggested that the VA was waiting for them to die so that we wouldn't have to pay the benefits. Pretty strong stuff for a new secretary to hear," he said.

"I asked you to give me a chance to fix the backlog that had been years in the making. I just needed a little bit of time, and I needed some resources."

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., a former member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee who attended the gathering, said she has always believed that "if you send your fellow citizens to war ... then you take care of them when they come back or don't send them in the first place."

After Shinseki's address and remarks by Berkley, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and Blinded Veterans Association President Roy Kekahuna of Las Vegas, the VA chief said he faced many challenges when he took office.

The biggest of those was -- and still is -- reducing the backlog of disability claims that hover around 1 million and reducing the time that veterans must wait for claims.

"Ending this backlog disability claims remains my No. 1 priority," he said.

Key to reducing the wait time will be converting the paperwork to an automated system.

"In the past what we've done is hire more people and you get a little more production. Today we have 14,000 people adjudicating claims," he said.

That has resulted in "an incremental bump in our production capability, but it isn't enough to take on and dominate the backlog," he said.

Two years ago, the VA staff processed 977,000 claims and received 1 million more. Last year, 1 million claims decisions were issued, but 1.2 million more claims were filed.

The wait time two years ago was 180 days; it's now about 160 days. The goal is to reduce it to 125 days by 2015, Shinseki said.

"This year we expect we're going to have 1.4 million to 1.5 million claims coming in, so this is a large numbers issue, and hiring more people in addition to the 14,000 we already have hired gives us an incremental bump, but it doesn't get us there. We have to automate."

The backlog problem has been compounded by his decision 18 months ago to add coverage for three new diseases linked to dioxin-laced Agent Orange defoliants used in the Vietnam War. That added another 250,000 claims.

"We did the same thing with combat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) affecting a new generation," he said.

Help is on the way though. There is a 27 percent increase to the agency's budget for automating the claims process that will take effect next year.

Despite the recession that has hit Nevada particularly hard with some 260,000 veterans facing unemployment and the mortgage crisis, the VA budget has steadily increased during the Obama administration.

The budget went from $99.8 billion to $115 billion in 2010, a 16 percent increase. The 2011 budget grew to $126.6 billion, and the president's request that is before Congress for 2012 calls for $132.2 billion.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@review or 702-383-0308.


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