As Americans, we make a solemn commitment to care for our nation’s brave men and women when they return home from serving our country in the military. But for far too long, we have fallen short of fulfilling that promise.
After decades of overreliance on outdated systems, the Department of Veterans Affairs is buried under the weight of backlogged disability benefits compensation claims. For veterans in Nevada, the average time to process and complete a claim is 513 days, and the average pending claim has been in the system for 350 days. While the VA’s Reno Regional Office, which serves Southern Nevada, is one of the worst, numbers around the country are also staggering. This is shameful, and it is unacceptable.
Since the 2010 expansion of eligibility for Vietnam veterans affected by post-traumatic stress disorder and Agent Orange, the claims backlog has more than doubled. Now with the end of the Iraq War and drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the gravity of this issue has become even more urgent.
Over the years, I have had the privilege to know veterans — including students, friends, colleagues, constituents and members of my own family — who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea, and even World War II. I am always humbled to hear courageous stories of their military service and personal experiences overseas. But all too often, these heroes recall the overwhelming hardship they faced when they returned home and the difficulties they had dealing with the VA. Such stories speak to the critical need to increase our support of service members as they transition into civilian life, look for housing, pursue higher education, seek employment and find needed healthcare programs.
Two weeks ago, I hosted a roundtable discussion with representatives from veterans groups and support organizations throughout Southern Nevada to gain their insight into the different issues related to veteran services in our community. While everyone brought a different perspective to the table, we all agreed that fixing the backlog for veterans of all generations remains one of our nation’s most urgent challenges.
As a member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee that oversees the VA’s benefit programs, I have made it a priority to seek the following outcomes for the 230,000-plus veterans living in Nevada: ensure timely access to benefits; reduce the claims backlog at the VA; and expand the resources and services available to veterans and military families.
As part of these efforts, I introduced the “Pay As You Rate Act,” which would require the VA to pay veterans their benefits as each component of their claim is adjudicated. Currently, the VA waits for the entire claim to be reviewed and processed before the claimant can receive even a part of the benefits the claimant deserves. The average benefits claim for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans contains 8.5 separate components. My bill would ensure that these veterans receive at least some of their benefits in a more timely manner, providing much needed financial support for them and their families sooner rather than later.
In an additional effort to expedite the claims process, I introduced a bill that would direct the VA to include a standardized appeals form with every rating decision issued, so that veterans do not have to wait 60 days just to receive instructions on filing an appeal. This proposal would instantly reduce the appeals process for veterans by 60 days, as well as save the VA approximately 50,000 man hours.
While these common-sense bills would have an immediate impact on the timeliness of benefit payments to veterans, the solution to eliminating the backlog and providing expeditious services for our veterans requires long-term efforts to modernize the system and streamline bureaucratic efforts.
As the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, I am working closely with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Under Secretary for Benefits, Gen. Allison Hickey, to end the bureaucratic logjam that is negatively affecting veterans’ disability claims and potentially their health. Our veterans deserve to have their claims efficiently and effectively processed, and that requires an integrated electronic health records system that merges the records from the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Currently, it takes the DOD an average of 120 days to get the medical paperwork on a soldier to the VA. The technology exists, the need is urgent, and the time to develop this is now.
Fixing the backlog won’t happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it our top priority. We owe it to our veterans and military families to honor their service and sacrifice with actions that renew our promise to support our troops on active duty and in their transition back to civilian life.
Just as the military pledges to leave no soldier behind on the battlefield, we must promise that when he or she returns home, we leave no veteran behind.
Dina Titus, a Democrat, represents Nevada’s 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives.