WASHINGTON — Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, the Pensacola-area Republican who chairs the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, wants to speed up the time it takes to process veterans disability claims.
It's one of two main priorities Miller outlined in an interview Wednesday in his Capitol Hill Office. The other is providing veterans greater access to mental health services, possibly by allowing them to access the TRICARE system that serves active-duty military personnel.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has set a goal that, by 2015, no disability compensation claim will take more than 125 days to fully process and that 98 percent will be accurate. As of August, it took an average 260 days to process each claim, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.
That's up from 161 days in 2009. The accuracy rate is currently about 85 percent, according to Miller's office.
One million service members are expected to become veterans within the next five years, further straining the agency's capabilities.
The GAO called the VA's ability to process claims in a timely manner "a daunting challenge."
Some 1.7 million veterans live in Florida.
The agency processes about 1 million disability benefits claims nationally a year, but there's another 1 million they can't get to, said Miller of Chumuckla.
"I don't want to sit here and continue to beat up on the VA," said Miller, who publicly criticized the agency last year for spending too much on conferences and for mismanaging construction of a new VA hospital in Orlando. "A .500 batting average in baseball — that's pretty damn good. It ain't good in the veterans world."
Tom Tarantino, a former Army captain who served in Iraq, said he knows the agency is trying to do a better job, But he called the backlog "an epically bad" challenge.
"The problem is very complex," said Tarantino, chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home with more injuries. They're surviving combat at a much higher rate, so claims for disabilities are five times more complicated then they ever were."
The backlog has been exacerbated by the administration's 2010 decision to accept 260,000 previously denied and new claims associated with Agent Orange exposure.
Allowing those claims was the "right thing," Miller said.
"But I don't think VA planned," he said. "They had an idea of the numbers of people that would be coming through the system, and that's where I fault VA."
Agency officials agree the delay has been an ongoing problem and have taken steps to shorten waiting times.
The VA has begun redeploying workers it dedicated to process the new Agent Orange claims now that those requests are practically complete. They promise to work more closely with other federal agencies to shorten paperwork delays. And they're planning to cut down on processing delays by converting to an electronic records system.
But in a report that came out Monday, the VA's inspector general said ongoing problems with the paperless system indicate the agency "will continue to face challenges in meeting its (2015) goal of eliminating the backlog."
Miller, whose Panhandle district includes more than 100,000 veterans, hopes to address gaps in mental health services as well. His committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the issue.
Non-emergency appointments can take months to schedule, he said. Allowing veterans to access TRICARE health professionals, he said, "could double access overnight."
Such a move would require Pentagon approval but Miller doesn't see that as a problem. The bigger issue would be convincing veterans' organizations to go along with a plan that could send many of their members to a network operated by a different bureaucracy.
But organizations like Tarantino's see the suicide rate among veterans — 22 per day, according to the VA — and say something must be done.
"I don't think it's a bad idea," he said of Miller's suggestion. "You hear a lot of talk about sending care outside the VA and it's always problematic and a little controversial. But you know what's problematic and controversial? Twenty-two people a day killing themselves."