Spurred by an avalanche of outrage from veterans who have waited months to more than a year for the Department of Veterans Affairs to process their claims, Nevada’s congressional members released a letter Thursday they sent to regional and national VA officials complaining about the backlog.
“We recognize there are multiple factors contributing to the number of veterans’ claims entering the system, including the addition of presumptive diseases associated with Agent Orange and the drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, addressing the claims backlog must be a priority regardless of these factors,” the letter reads.
It was signed Tuesday by Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Reps. Dina Titus and Steven Horsford, both D-Nev., and Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., did not sign the letter.
The Veterans Benefits Administration regional offices handle disability, pension and education benefits, and the letter took aim at disability compensation, saying thousands of Nevada veterans who suffer from the visible and invisible wounds of war or have non-service-connected health problems have been left in the lurch too long.
On Monday, the Veterans Benefits workload report for disability compensation listed the VA Reno Regional Office sixth nationwide among the highest percentage of claims pending for more than 125 days, with 8,247 out of 10,333, or nearly 80 percent.
The Reno office, which handles claims for all of Nevada, was ranked for highest percentage of longtime pending claims behind only VA area offices in Washington, D.C.; Oakland, Calif.; Baltimore; Chicago and Boston among 58 offices in U.S. cities and territories.
VA LAG TIME LAMENTED
The delegation’s letter to Reno Regional Office Director Edward Russell and VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey noted that 4,210 Nevada veterans have waited more than a year for an answer.
On average, the wait time is 479 days, with a 681-day average wait time for veterans filing for the first time. The letter cited the Center for Investigative Reporting.
“This is significantly longer than the national average and is unacceptable for veterans in Las Vegas, Reno and across the State of Nevada who are relying on the Reno VARO to adjudicate these claims in a timely manner,” the delegation’s letter reads.
Russell, who was traveling Thursday, acknowledged the backlog in an email response to a request for comment.
“Too many Veterans are waiting too long to receive earned benefits. Delays are unacceptable, and that is why VA has a robust plan to tackle this problem and build a paperless, digital disability claims system to end the backlog in 2015,” Russell wrote.
He said the VA will submit an official response to the Nevada delegation’s letter, noting that the VA “has completed 4.1 million claims over the past four years — an unprecedented number.”
Complaints about the backlog have been commonplace since Heller became a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in January.
“It’s something we certainly hear about,” said Chandler Smith, Heller’s communications director.
In statement accompanying the delegation’s letter, Heller said, “Unfortunately, the State of Nevada is home to more than 10,000 heroes stuck waiting for answers regarding their benefits claims. These selfless patriots know all too well the price that is paid for freedom, and the last thing they should be worried about is waiting for benefits they earned in service to our nation.”
Titus, ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, said, “Our veterans have to wait far too long to receive the benefits they earned. … I have made this issue a top priority.”
VA CHIEF: ENDING BACKLOG HIS PRIORITY
In a 2011 speech to the Blinded Veterans Association national convention in Las Vegas, VA Secretary Erik Shinseki said ending the backlog in disability claims “remains my No. 1 priority.”
His solution was to hire more staff members than the 14,000 who are adjudicating claims and convert the paperwork to an automated system.
Shinseki said he was trying to stem the rising tide of claims. He noted the VA staff processed 977,000 claims in 2009 and received 1 million more. In 2010, 1 million claims decisions were issued, but 1.2 million more claims were filed. The average wait time nationwide in 2009 was 180 days, reduced to 160 days in 2011.
“The goal is to reduce it to 125 days by 2015,” he said in his address at the Golden Nugget.
Last year, $58.6 billion in disability compensation was paid to 4.3 million veterans and survivors. However, the number of medical issues per claim has increased 200 percent over the past decade because many veterans are returning from combat zones with severe, more complex injuries.
Also, there is increased demand on resources by the aging veteran population, with hundreds of thousands of new claims filed for medical conditions related to post-traumatic stress disorder, Gulf War illness and exposure to Agent Orange defoliants used in the Vietnam War.
Vietnam War veteran Lou Filardo, among an estimated 300,000 veterans in Nevada, said he wasn’t surprised when it took the VA about seven months to process his PTSD claim two years ago.
But then he had to face “a very cumbersome, awkward health care system. They’re terribly understaffed. There’s no individuals to blame, but the bigger issue is how the overall system works.”
He said the $1 billion VA Medical Center, which opened in North Las Vegas last year, is overdue for accepting in-patients and functions as “a collection of individual clinics.”
“For one thing they are seriously understaffed and need to have a better sense of overall planning,” Filardo said. “It takes weeks to make appointments, weeks to see any anybody and weeks to follow up.
“It’s the way the government does things. In the private sector, time is money, but in the public sector it’s ‘when we get around to it.’ ”
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.