Titus pushes to get benefits for vets stuck in VA quagmire

Help is on the horizon for veterans mired in a swamp of paperwork that’s stalling their benefits.

But one local vet who battled the Department of Veterans Affairs for three decades is skeptical, saying the help might turn out to be a false hope for many.

Rep. Dina Titus said Friday she will introduce the Pay as You Rate Act, a bill to award compensation faster to those stuck in a backlog of disability claims.

And the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it is launching an effort to expedite decisions on claims for veterans who have been waiting a year or more for answers.

Titus, D-Nev., a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and ranking member of the subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs, said her bill will debut “in the coming weeks.”

The bill would require the VA to pay benefits to vets as components of their claims are adjudicated.

“Currently, the VA waits for the entire claim to be reviewed and processed before they receive any benefits,” she said in a statement.

“The average claim from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans contains (more than eight) components. My legislation will ensure our nation’s heroes receive at least part of their benefits in a timely fashion,” she said.

VA CHIEF REACHES OUT

Titus spoke with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki by phone Friday in the aftermath of a stinging letter Nevada’s members of Congress — with the exception of Rep. Mark Amodei — sent this week to VA officials in Reno and Washington, D.C., complaining about the backlog.

Shinseki “reached out to her,” Titus’ spokeswoman Caitlin Teare said, “because it’s been an ongoing conversation between her and the secretary on the backlog that’s been going on in Nevada.”

A spokesman for Amodei, R-Nev., said Amodei supports the points made in the letter but declined to sign it because he is trying to work with the officials.

“This would have been a step back from ongoing communications with those individuals,” Amodei spokesman Brian Baluta said.

The letter urged Reno Regional Office Director Edward Russell and VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey to make it their priority to address the claims backlog regardless of an influx in new claims from the drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and expansion of coverage for diseases linked to Agent Orange defoliants used during the Vietnam War.

VET: ‘BAND-AID’ APPROACH

Bill Baumann, a Vietnam War and Korean War veteran from Henderson, said the VA’s announcement to expedite claims and bills to dribble out compensation “is just a Band-Aid type of approach.”

“Let’s get in and get it done,” said Baumann, legislative chairman for the Disabled American Veterans Department of Nevada, who grappled with the VA from 1971 through 1999 to receive his 100 percent disability rating.

“They’ve hired enough people, and they’ve had time to train them. And they’ve got enough paper work stacked up. Let’s break that down and get it automated,” he said.

Eighty percent of Nevada’s 10,333 claimants have waited more than 125 days to have their claims processed, including 4,210 who have waited more than a year for an answer.

The VA’s Reno Regional Office, which handles claims for Nevada veterans, is ranked the sixth-worst in the nation for delays in processing claims among 58 VA area offices.

According to VA officials, there are nearly 900,000 claims pending in the system nationwide, including some 250,000 from veterans who have been waiting at least a year for a decision.

Veterans receive disability compensation for injuries and illness incurred or aggravated during their active military service.

The amount of the compensation is based on a rating assigned by the VA.

A veteran rated 100 percent disabled who lives alone receives $2,816 per month.

The rate increases to $3,099 for a 100 percent disabled vet with a dependent spouse and one parent.

For comparison, a veteran rated 30 percent disabled with a spouse is entitled to $442 per month.

VA SYSTEM’S FIX

Hickey, who oversees the Veterans Benefits Administration, said provisional decisions will be made in the coming months based on the evidence in each veteran’s file.

In some cases, medical exams will be required, and those will be expedited.

Veterans whose claims are granted will get compensation immediately.

Veterans whose claims are denied will have a year to submit more information before the VA makes a final decision.

If the VA reverses the first decision, then benefits will be paid retroactively to when the veteran first submitted the claim.

The VA projected that it will take up to six months to complete the 250,000 claims being targeted.

Lawmakers cautiously approved of the plan to focus on the oldest claims first, but Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, emphasized that it doesn’t resolve the systemic problems that the VA faces because it relies on paper files.

The VA is rolling out a new computer system designed to improve efficiency, but not all regional offices will have that system until the end of the year.

“We will be monitoring it closely to make sure it’s good policy rather than just good PR,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Review-Journal writer Brian Haynes and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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