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CINCINNATI — U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said the system for handling veterans' disability claims is broken and he wants the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs to explain what is being done to fix it.
Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said in a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki this week that the benefit delivery system for veterans has not shown any noticeable improvement in the four years Shinseki has headed the department and the backlog of compensation claims "remains alarmingly high."
The VA was preparing a formal response to Boehner's letter, a VA spokesman said Friday. The VA has said it completed a "record-breaking" 1 million claims per year the past three years.
But the speaker wrote in his letter that the backload remains high, especially in Ohio, despite the announcement at the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Regional Office last summer of a new organizational model to help reduce the backlog by 2015. The Cleveland office, which handles claims from around the state, is now processing claims in an average of 334 days compared with the national average of 272 days and the VA's own goal of 125 days, Boehner said.
Since the transformation began at the Cleveland office, the average time to process a claim has increased by 20 percent, or about 56 days, and the current national average has increased by 17.7 percent since January 2012, Boehner said.
The speaker said in a statement that he has been "disappointed and disheartened by the results" of the new system and that system failures reported by Ohio veterans are "shameful." His office is handling more than 100 unresolved claims from Ohio veterans, including one from Air Force veteran Tiffany Hilliard, of Troy.
Hilliard said Friday that she has been waiting more than a year to add her now 17-month-old daughter as a dependent. She said she was told when checking last month on the status of her October 2011 request that inquiries about claim statuses were no longer being handled because of the backlog. Hilliard said she has lost benefits by not having her daughter listed as a dependent but hopes that "speaking out might help other veterans who may need more help."
Army veteran Randy Bitner, of Eaton, said he submitted a disability claim around March 2011 and received a form letter last month saying he was now in the system. Bitner said he has received no information about the timing for resolving his claim.
Data from a report on work load indicators reported by Veterans Benefits Administration field offices for Jan. 24, 2009, showed the number of pending compensation claims nationwide at roughly 390,000, with 10,500 of those pending at the Cleveland office, Boehner wrote. He said the report for Feb. 11, 2013, showed the total pending compensation claims had grown to 821,000, with more than 71 percent older than 125 days.
The VA said in 2010 that it invested $138 million in a digital paperless claims system that would be deployed in 2012. The VA has acknowledged that too many veterans have to wait too long to get benefits but says the paperless system will eliminate the backlog and the technology is expected to reach all 56 regional VA offices by the end of this year.
But Boehner wants answers now. He asked Shinseki to reply to his questions within 30 days.
Boehner's questions include whether the VA's benefits office has started to convert old paper files to digital ones and what end date is projected for conversion. Boehner also wants to know what the VA, which he says potentially made more than 400,000 errors in rating claims over the past three years, has done to reduce the time veterans are waiting to have claims reviewed and re-adjudicated.
He asked whether Shinseki believes the VA is on track to achieve its goals of processing claims in under 125 days and eliminating the claims backlog by 2015.
"America's veterans," Boehner wrote, "are counting on you."