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The new secretary of Veterans Affairs, retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, got a recent tour of the paperwork battlefield on which VA claim adjudicators serve every day. It was a bracing scene -- literally.

“You walk into one of our rooms where…decisions are being made about disabilities for veterans [and] see individuals sitting at a desk with stacks of paper that go up half way to the ceiling. And as they finish one pile, another pile comes in,” Shinseki, former Army chief of staff, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee Feb. 4.

“There are 11,100 people doing this…good people, hired to do a rather challenging job in which they are trying to apply judgment to situations that occurred years ago,” Shinseki said. Paperwork, he added, doesn’t draw out “a full appreciation for the context of combat.”

The army of claim adjudicators is equal in size to the 82nd Airborne Division, Shinseki said. It grew by 4000 in the last two years. Another 1100 will be hired this year to address VA’s claims backlog. It’s “a brute force solution” to a problem best solved with an electronic claim processing system. Information technology, he said, could produce the “timely, accurate, consistent decision-making” that veterans deserve.

“If we don’t…create a paperless process,” Shinseki told lawmakers, “I’ll report a year from now that we hired more people to do this.”

Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) said Shinseki should make another visit soon to one of VA’s file rooms. “It’s almost dangerous,” said Snyder. The rooms “are overwhelmed” with claims. Some individual claims have swelled to “three, four and five volumes.”

Ironically, Snyder said, technology might be aggravating the problem. Veterans who look continuously to strengthen disability claims are making internet searches. Printouts on all aspects of their conditions or diseases are then sent to the VA to be added to case files.

“The files will just keep growing,” Snyder said. “We’ve got to get a handle on this whole thing.”

Shinseki was warmly received by the committee where he laid out administration priorities for veterans. Behind him, representatives of various veterans’ service organizations mostly nodded heads in agreement.

They didn’t nod, however, when Shinseki declined to endorse a legislative priority for many VSOs this year: a bill to require that VA health budgets be funded a year ahead of normal appropriations. Advocates say this will ensure timely funding of VA hospitals. They no longer would have to operate on the cheap under a “continuing resolution” because the VA budget got bogged down by a partisan fight...

In late January, many VSOs hailed such a bill, the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform Act, reintroduced for 2009 by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Senate VA Committee chairman. But Shinseki implied Congress simply needs to act more responsibly on VA appropriation bills.

“My preference would be for a timely budget and I will assure you I’ll do my part,” he said. While Army chief of staff, Shinseki recalled, “I lived with continuing resolutions and I know full well the impact they bring.” If his experience as VA secretary shows health care budgets still can’t get passed on time, then “other options” will be discussed, Shinseki said.

BUYER URGES DIC INCREASE — Rep. Steve Buyer (Ind.), ranking Republican on the committee, asked Shinseki to support an increase in Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.

DIC is paid to survivors of members who die on active duty or die of service-related conditions in retirement. DIC hasn’t kept pace with survivor compensation for federal civilian workers, Buyer said.

He is preparing a bill that would raise DIC by 12 percent across the board. Basic DIC is now $1154 a month and $286 a month is added for each dependent child under age 18. Another $246 is added if, at time of death, a veteran had been rated as 100-percent disabled for eight years, and had been married during that the same period.

YELLOW RIBBON: SNIPPED OR NOT? — Keith M. Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration, said comments he made here two weeks ago about the Yellow Ribbon feature of the Post-9/11 GI Bill were premature and not couched in a proper context.

Wilson said then that few private colleges likely will participate in Yellow Ribbon offer this fall because school endowments have been hit by the financial crisis. His prediction of weak interest in Yellow Ribbon was based on unofficial feedback from college officials. He regrets that he made the remarks before regulations are finalized to implement the new GI Bill.

Yellow Ribbon participation can’t be judged accurately until schools have all the facts. That would include final implementation rules and knowledge of what state-run schools charge for tuition and fees this fall. The last bit of information will determine maximum amounts that private schools might want to waive.

Under Yellow Ribbon, high-priced schools will volunteer to enter into agreements with VA to waive up to half of tuition and fees in excess of undergraduate charges at the most expensive state-run college. The VA then will reimburse the school for half of any excess cost waived.

Yellow Ribbon matching also can be used at state-run colleges to help veterans who are paying higher out-of-state tuition or the higher cost of graduate-level courses.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities took exception to Wilson’s earlier comments, saying many of its 952 member colleges were interested in the Yellow Ribbon program but await final details.

To comment, e-mail milupdate@aol.com, write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111 or visit: militaryupdate.com


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