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Editorial: Veterans deserve timely approval of VA benefits

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It is fitting that on the run-up to the Memorial Day weekend, when fallen soldiers are remembered, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has pledged to make a dedicated effort to clear a huge backlog of compensation claims for living veterans who served their country.

“(Veterans) deserve those benefits at the end of their career, and part of my job is to ensure that it happens.” Hagel, a decorated combat veteran, said Wednesday.

More than 600,000 U.S. veterans, including more than 5,000 in New Mexico, are waiting for claim approval.

Hagel and Gen. Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs, want the cases cleared by 2015, and Hagel said he would take a personal interest in seeing it done.

The backlog consists of cases that take more than 125 days to process. In New Mexico the average wait time is 250 days, and first-time claims can take 400 days – more than a year.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.,called the VA benefit situation “unacceptable.” It is, considering you can get food stamps in New Mexico in about a month or even less time if your situation is deemed an emergency.

In his 2014 budget request, President Barack Obama wants $291 million to expand claims processing, $155 million for a paperless system to process claims and $136.4 million to convert paper documents to electronic files for a new veterans claims intake program.

One of the snags has been disagreement between the Veterans Administration and the Defense Department about the best way to modernize their computer systems and integrate their records.

It’s time to fix this long-standing problem that leaves veterans in limbo waiting for benefits they earned. It serves no one to quibble over territory.

So as U.S. flags decorate the graves of the fallen, let’s remember the living veterans who served their country in wars, special operations and other deployments, and thank them for their service.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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