By handling more than twice as many claims per month as it did last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs is finally keeping the nation's promise to many veterans by providing them the benefits they earned in service to America. More than 28,000 veterans, many over age 70, had waited more than a year for an answer on their claims -- time that the elderly can ill afford. While the legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans is concerned that the claims are not being adjudicated competently, we would suggest veterans groups give Anthony Principi, secretary of Veterans Affairs for only 16 months, a little time to realize his goals.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Principi, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Vietnam War veteran, used an appropriate military metaphor in describing his department's achievement thus far. "We decided to really declare war on that backlog and took some rather bold steps to address it."
He didn't have much choice.
With nearly a quarter of a million employees, the VA is the nation's second largest bureaucracy, and along with its caseload its problems have grown exponentially over the years. Slow and inefficient procedures, inadequate technology and marginal training programs have made it even harder for the agency to come close to keeping up with increasing numbers of claims.
During his Senate confirmation hearing Jan. 18, 2001, Principi vowed to reduce processing times and to decrease the disability claims backlog without compromising the accuracy of rendered decisions. He informed the Senate Veterans Committee that he would commission a broad-based and inclusive task force to conduct an examination of VA benefits processing. The decrease in the backlog is in large part attributable to the recommendations of the 12-person task force he appointed.
To be sure, veterans organizations have been increasingly critical of the VA's inability to process claims in a timely manner despite the 2000 Veterans Claims Assistance Act which was to provide veterans with more assistance in filling out claims forms. In fact, that has only increased the time per claim.
Nonetheless, Robert Epley, the Veterans Benefit Administration's associate deputy undersecretary for policy program management, believes that new strategies will reduce the average time to process a claim from 224 to 100 days. The VBA processes more than $25 billion in benefits annually.
A Veterans of Foreign Wars newsletter tells members, "VA benefits are not gifts. You've earned them. But unless you want your claim to be a part of the VA backlog, start out right" ... by supplying necessary information and filling out documents completely.
Such help from veterans organizations can help stop the backlog from growing, but it's up to the VA to get its systems in order to reduce the backlog significantly.