By Johnny Kampis | Missouri Watchdog
ST. LOUIS — More than 60 U.S. senators, including the two from Missouri, are urging the White House to help alleviate a growing backlog of veterans’ disability claims that see most wait months, and in some cases years, for processing.
More than 600,000 veterans are now in the Department of Veterans Affairs backlog, with the average wait time nearly 290 days.
Nearly 20,000 claims are pending in the St. Louis office, with 71 percent of those waiting more than 125 days, slightly higher than the national average of 69.4 percent. Average wait time: 370 days.
“Veterans returning home from war with serious physical and psychological injuries shouldn’t have to wait for a year for the benefits they’ve earned,” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
She joined 66 other senators, including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in penning a letter to President Barack Obama this week asking for the direct involvement of his office in alleviating the backlog.
In a not-too-subtle dig, the senators noted that the backlog has increased 2,000 percent in the past four years despite a 40 percent increase in the VA’s budget.
“This country must be grateful for the safe homecoming of every single man and woman who has served in harm’s way,” the senators wrote. “Our joy at their return must be reflected in our commitment to helping all who have served.”
The VA announced a plan last month to speed up the process by issuing provisional decisions on the oldest claims. Veterans can submit additional evidence for consideration on those claims a year after the provisional rating is given before VA issues a final determination.
“Too many Veterans wait too long for a decision, and this has never been acceptable,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement. “That is why we are implementing an aggressive plan to eliminate the backlog in 2015.”
The VA said that about 250,000 veterans with pending claims have waited more than a year. Even though the agency has completed at least 1 million claims per year during the past three years, the number of claims received continues to exceed the number processed.
VA officials attribute this jump largely to a couple of factors —the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a simplifying of the process for some Vietnam vets affected by Agent Orange to qualify for compensation.
A Center for Investigative Reporting newsgraphic last August noted that the average wait time for the St. Louis regional office was 370 days, with 4,873 filers, or nearly 25 percent, waiting at least a year.
The situation hasn’t improved much in the ensuing eight months — 19.741 claims were pending then; 19,645 now, according to the VA’s latest quarterly report that can be downloaded here.
Officials at the St. Louis office declined comment to Missouri Watchdog on Wednesday.
Don Lauer, service officer for the St. Charles American Legion post, recently helped a World War II veteran in his 80s file his first claim at the local VA office, but he’s not expecting a speedy resolution.
“It is terrible,” Lauer told Watchdog. “They say they’re going to cut it down now, but I don’t know how it’s going to work out.”
Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, dubbed the backlog “a national embarrassment.”
“The claims backlog fiasco has gone on for over 10 years and is only getting worse,” Rieckhoff said in a statement. “Disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans should not have to wait until 2015 to receive the financial and health support they depend on.”
Members of IAVA converged on Capitol Hill in March to share their stories with lawmakers. The group’s legislative director, Alex Nicholson, testified before Congress as veterans with pending claims flooded Twitter with the hashtag #EndTheVABacklog.
The VA announced on Monday that senior officials of the Veterans Benefit Administration who oversee disability claims will not get bonuses because their failed to meet their backlog-cutting goals, and that the money allocated for those performance goals will be used to help alleviate the wait times.
Contact Johnny Kampis at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Missouri Watchdog updates, visit Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for our free newsletter with investigative reports and breaking news alerts.