Heller leads group working to reduce VA disability backlog


J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., second from left, accompanied by fellow Senate Republicans, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, where they discussed benefits to long-term jobless workers. From left are Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Heller, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind.

Thu, Mar 6, 2014 (8:30 p.m.)

A working group led by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., released a report and bill Thursday that they say will help streamline the veterans disability benefits process as well as erase a backlog of claims that in some places, like Reno, is now years long.

“What we’re trying to do is move this to the 21st century — right now, the system that we have works for World War II veterans,” Heller pointed out Thursday. “If they can have a complete claim and do it right the first time, they can find out they can get through these systems a lot quicker.”

Heller, along with a bipartisan group of Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., David Vitter, R-La., and Jerry Moran, R-Ks., are pushing the three-part legislation as an important first step in resolving still-lingering backlogs in veterans disability claims, even as the Department of Veterans Affairs tries to catch up.

The “21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act” proposes new pilot programs, studies and standards to help improve veterans’ access to claims information and applications, increase the productivity of regional offices, and better coordinate the information on VA claims at the federal level.

“Obviously, all of this is going to come together to solve this problem,” Heller said. “There’s no silver bullet.”

The senators’ goal is to reduce the maximum processing time for a full claim to 125 days.

That is also the goal of the VA, which stated last year that it intended to eliminate the backlog of claims pending for longer than 125 days by the end of 2015.

In December, the VA said they are on track to meet that goal.

But the lawmakers backing Thursday’s bill said that they want to make sure the systematic problems that led to the backlog don’t resurface once the VA’s goal is met.

“We’re moving backwards instead of forwards, and there’s reason for that: Two active wars contributed to that. Acts of Congress, regulation, and every time there’s a judicial change,” Heller said. “The key is that we’re not here five years from now having the same conversation.”

The bipartisan Senate group’s proffer to reduce the veterans’ backlog comes a few months after the House of Representatives passed a package of bills to reduce the VA disability claims backlog. That package included a measure from Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., to expedite appeals to claims that had been denied, by including the proper appeal request form with the notice of denial, saving time currently spent on making and responding to requests.

Heller said he hoped the Senate and the House could resolve the differences between their bills in a conference committee process, once the Senate considers the group’s legislation.

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