Sen. Heller to Work on VA Backlog

By Lukas Eggen Ely Times Staff Writer

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey held a phone conference Thursday afternoon announcing the launching of the bipartisan VA Backlog Working Group.

The group will be comprised of lawmakers, veterans and veterans service organizations to try and alleviate the current backlog of pending claims from veterans.

“I’ve been working on this issue for some time now,” Heller said. “To me, sitting on the VA and having the hearings we’re having on this issue and realizing and recognizing we’re really not solving this problem, we certainly haven’t solved this for a number of years and I thought it was important we put together a working group … We want to get the bottom of this. We have a 1945 solution to a 21st century problem. It simply isn’t working.”

In Nevada, there are 10,000 pending claims. Of those claims, 70 percent are considered backlogged, which are claims pending for more than 125 days, Heller said. A round table meeting held in Washoe County in June saw several veteran groups and organizations express concerns over pending claims.

On a national scale, there are nearly 800,000 pending veterans claims, according to information provided by Heller’s office.

“That’s frustrating for these veterans,” Heller said. “It’s frustrating for these families. We owe it to them to give them something better than that.”

Heller and Casey sent a letter, which was also signed by 65 senators, to President Obama requesting the issue becomes a national priority. In the past, national lawmakers have held hearings to examine the issue of backlogged claims.

But both Heller and Casey said they believe this working group can yield results in the future.

“Sometimes you can move the ball forward if you have something that’s a little less formal that’s smaller and more focused,” Casey said. “We believe that if we can focus on this intensively, we can provide some constructive proposals.”

Whether the working group can find solutions where others have struggled in the past remains to be seen. But Heller said a lack of success in the past isn’t discouraging him from finding a solution for the future.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Heller said. “That’s why this working group is together now. We can find what the delays are and come up with an idea and hopefully a report sometime this fall to figure out the best way to address this. I think it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”

Heller and Casey’s staffs will be working together on this issue. And both believe they will continue to have support from other lawmakers as they search for a solution.

While they don’t have specific solutions for this issue yet, Casey said the solution will have to come in making the VA more efficient.

“I don’t think it’s a funding problem,” Casey said. “It happens in federal agencies and agencies at every level of government, where the bureaucracy of an agency just doesn’t get the job done because there’s not enough of a sense of urgency. Sometimes it takes a bipartisan effort in the Senate or the House to make this a much higher priority than it’s been.”

The Backlog Working Group has the support of various veterans groups, who hope this Working Group can, and will, yield measurable results.

“This is a common-sense initiative that should help VA in achieving its goal,” National Commander of The American Legion James Koutz said. “The Backlog Working Group put together by Senators Heller and Casey is a meaningful bipartisan effort to work with The American Legion, other VSOs and VA in finding effective solutions. We are especially encouraged to see that this group will also be working with VA’s regional offices, which vary widely in their claims processing efficiency.”

How successful the Backlog Working Group will be in solving the growing number of pending claims remains to be seen. But this is one thing the country must do to help its veterans, Casey said.

“We have a long way to go, but this is one of the few ways our government can express some measure of gratitude for those who have done so much for our behalf,” Casey said.

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