The vast backlog of veterans’ disability claims is being reduced and should be eliminated by 2015, said U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki during a Thursday visit to Seattle.
“Today veterans wait too long to receive benefits. It’s never been acceptable,” Shinseki said.
But a backlog that topped 600,000 claims in March is now down to about 480,000, Shinseki said. He pledged to wipe out the backlog by 2015, repeating assertions made by President Obama two weeks ago at a Disabled American Veterans conference in Florida.
Shinseki defined eliminating the backlog as being able to process all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy.
When asked how confident he was of attaining that goal, Shinseki said, “We’re committed to 2015.”
The backlog has been a sore spot for Obama, who has faced sharp criticism from veterans advocates. House Speaker John Boehner said earlier this year the veterans-claim system was broken.
Shinseki said he has not personally communicated the progress in claims processing to Boehner, a Republican from Ohio.
A record number of claims has been handled in each of the past three years, Shinseki said during a 12-minute meeting with Seattle media.
He ascribed the ongoing backlog to “unfinished business from previous wars.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs has recognized 12 new diseases related to the Gulf War and Vietnam War, he said, which has slowed processing. Claims related to Agent Orange alone added 260,000 cases to the rolls, he said.
A retired four-star Army general who lost part of a foot after stepping on a land mine in Vietnam, Shinseki has been traveling to VA offices around the country to talk to employees about the backlog and a new automated system designed to expedite claims.
The new, paperless system was installed in Seattle in June, about six months ahead of schedule, Shinseki said.
A majority of VA employees are themselves veterans. Going to a paperless system “is a big transition for them,” he said.
As for those he met in Seattle, Shinseki said, “They are committed to providing benefits. They want to do it faster. I’ve asked a lot of them and told them I want more.”