WASHINGTON -- The majority of the U.S. Senate sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Friday, urging his "direct and public involvement" in fixing the disability claims backlog plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"In the last four years, the number of claims pending for over a year has grown by over 2000%, despite a 40% increase in the VA's budget," read the letter, which was signed by 67 senators, led by Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.). "As a reminder, during this same time period, Congress has given VA everything it has asked for in terms of more funding and more employees; however, this has not eliminated the backlog of claims. Solving this problem is critical for veterans of all generations. We need direct and public involvement from you to establish a clear plan to end the backlog once and for all."
Citing a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting that found that "the average wait time for first time disability claims currently ranges between 316 and 327 days," the letter points out that average wait times in major cities across the United States are often much higher, including up to 642 days in the case of veterans in New York City.
The administration has cited an archaic system of paper filing as part of the reason for the backlog, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has said he hopes to convert the records over to an electronic system.
"The effects of automation are going to begin to show themselves," he said this month.
Still, veterans groups have been frustrated by the delays.
"I supported President Obama in both elections, but what is happening right now at VA is inexcusable," Thomas Bandzul, a legal counsel at the Veterans and Military Families for Progress, told the Daily Beast in early April. "It’s time the president takes full responsibility for this failure, and takes action. This is happening on his watch."
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough recently said the president believes reducing the backlog is a "national priority." Obama also has proposed a 13.6 percent increase in funding for the handling of veterans benefits.
In addition to Casey and Heller, the following senators signed the letter: Mark Warner, Kirsten Gillibrand, Angus King, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Donnelly, Jeff Flake, Rand Paul, James Risch, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Pat Toomey, Roy Blunt, Tammy Baldwin, Saxby Chambliss, Michael Enzi, Jerry Moran, Jeff Sessions, Mitch McConnell, Mark Begich, Johnny Isakson, John Boozman, Jeff Merkley, Maria Cantwell, Dianne Feinstein, Marco Rubio, Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Pat Roberts, Frank Lautenberg, Debbie Stabenow, Tom Carper, David Vitter, Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Kirk, Robert Menendez, Sheldon Whitehouse, Jay Rockefeller, Claire McCaskill, John Cornyn, Ben Cardin, Chris Murphy, Mazie Hirono, Ted Cruz, Thad Cochran , Ron Wyden, Mike Crapo, Roger Wicker, Mark Pryor, John Thune, Kay Hagan, Susan Collins, Heidi Heitkamp, Tom Harkin, Brian Schatz, Bill Nelson, Dick Durbin, Lisa Murkowski, Jon Tester , Richard Blumenthal, Joe Manchin, Harry Reid, Tim Kaine, Rob Portman, Kelly Ayotte and Tim Scott.
Read the letter below:
April 26, 2013
Dear Mr. President:
We are writing to request that you take direct action and involvement in ending the current Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability claims backlog.
After a decade of war, and despite the VA’s efforts to modernize, more than 600,000 veterans are still stuck in the VA’s disability claims backlog. While the average wait time for first time disability claims currently ranges between 316 and 327 days, veterans in certain parts of the country are waiting even longer – 681 days in Reno, 642 in New York, 625 in Pittsburgh, 619 in Los Angeles, 612 in Indianapolis, 586 in Houston, and 510 in Philadelphia. In the worst cases, veterans have waited and continue to wait 800 days, 900 days, and even more than 1000 days for a disability claims decision from the VA.
In the last four years, the number of claims pending for over a year has grown by over 2000%, despite a 40% increase in the VA’s budget. As a reminder, during this same time period, Congress has given VA everything it has asked for in terms of more funding and more employees; however, this has not eliminated the backlog of claims. Solving this problem is critical for veterans of all generations. We need direct and public involvement from you to establish a clear plan to end the backlog once and for all.
This country must be grateful for the safe homecoming of every single man and woman who has served in harm’s way. Our joy at their return must be reflected in our commitment to helping all who have served. We respectfully ask you and your administration to find a solution that ensures that no veterans are stuck in the VA backlog.
Thank you for your consideration of this matter.