VA making progress in claims backlog

Jul 5, 2013 McClatchy Newspapers

CHEYENNE -- The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs is chipping away at its large backlog of disability compensation claims for veterans in Wyoming and the rest of the country.

The VA recently announced it has processed nearly all of its claims that have been pending two years or longer.

Officials said more than 65,000 claims have been eliminated from the VA's nationwide backlog during the past two months.

That includes 16 from Wyoming veterans.

"Over the past two months, VA has been dedicated to providing earned benefits to the veterans who have waited the longest," said William J. Kane.

He is director of the VA's Denver Regional Office, which oversees the Cheyenne Veterans Service office.

"We've made great progress," Kane added. "But (we) know much work remains to be done to eliminate the backlog by 2015."

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has announced his goal to erase the backlog of compensation claims pending for more than 125 days by the end of 2015.

He authorized mandatory overtime starting in May at VA's 56 regional offices to expedite the claims. The move was a response to the growing backlog that has prevented hundreds of thousands of veterans from getting benefits on time.

Nationwide, VA reports it had about 802,000 pending claims as of June 22. Of that amount, about 524,711 are pending longer than 125 days.

Rebecca Sawyer Smith, a VA spokeswoman, said 618 of the 1,261 pending claims in Wyoming are older than 125 days.

But she said the Cheyenne office, which handles claims for the entire state, compares favorably to many other regional offices that have longer wait times.

It takes the Cheyenne Veterans Service office an average of 187.2 days to complete a claim, based on those it processed from Oct. 1 to June 22.

The national average is 336.6 days for that time frame.

Dwight Null, a service department officer with the Wyoming American Legion, said having to wait months or even years to get benefits can be a burden for many veterans.

"Some of (them) have been seriously injured," he said.

"Having to wait for a year or two can put a lot of stress on the veteran and his or her family."

Null works directly with many veterans in the state by helping them through the claims process.

He said Wyoming is fortunate because vets in many other states have to wait far longer to have claims processed.

"I'm happy to say we don't have one of the regional offices with such a big backlog," he said.

Null said he is optimistic VA can meet its goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015. He added he is impressed by the progress made the past few months.

But he said VA has to show it can maintain this pace over the long run.

"What I'm looking at now is when they get everything caught up if they can keep that going," he said.

"You don't want to let up and be back to where we were."

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