WASHINGTON – U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed Wednesday to help slash a backlog of compensation claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, including a wait for first-time claims in New Mexico that averages more than a year.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and other members of the Senate Appropriations Committee met with Hagel and Gen. Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs, in a rare summit in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to discuss the long-standing problem. Afterward, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., told reporters the military construction and Veterans Affairs bill would be the first piece of legislation her committee takes up this summer.
Hagel and Shinseki have announced a plan to eliminate the backlog, consisting of cases that take more than 125 days to process, by 2015. More than 600,000 U.S. veterans are waiting for claims, including more than 5,000 in New Mexico, according to Udall’s office.
“The average waiting time in New Mexico is 250 days, and a first-time claim, 400 days,” Udall said. “This is what I hear about the most when I have my meetings back in New Mexico. The reasons for the delay don’t matter. It’s unacceptable … and we’ve got to get this resolved.”
President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget request contains $291 million to expand claims processing and $155 million for the Veterans Benefits Management System, a paperless system to process claims. Another $136.4 million dollars is allotted for conversion of paper documents to electronic files – called “eFolders” – to support a new veterans claims intake program.
Hagel, who is well-known as a decorated combat veteran, reminded reporters that he served as deputy administrator of the VA during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He said he would personally push to get the backlog eliminated.
“They (veterans) deserve those benefits at the end of their career, and part of my job is to ensure that it happens.” Hagel said.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition, told reporters Wednesday that the Defense Department and the VA are continuing to work to integrate their records and are making progress. But he acknowledged that the two agencies differ on the separate matter of how best to modernize their computerized systems. He said the VA would likely have preferred that the Pentagon adopt the VA system. And he added that, depending on the bidding process, the military could eventually end up with a system similar to the VA’s.
“Enough of this nonsense,” said Rick Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America, saying the Pentagon should take the VA system and work with the VA to modernize it. “The time is way past to be spending taxpayer dollars on trying to develop a new system from scratch.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.