Bill aims to tackle VA backlog

Published 10:43 am Tuesday, February 16, 2016

By Mark Brunswick

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

A bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Tim Walz aimed at tackling the Department of Veterans Affairs benefit-claims backlog passed the House of Representatives last week.

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Walz.FrankenThe Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act of 2015 is a bipartisan, bicameral bill that allows local doctors to conduct disability medical examinations for veterans seeking benefits from the VA for the first time. Currently, veterans must visit a VA facility for the examination.

Allowing veterans to see a local doctor for their initial exam is designed to conserve VA resources, cut back on long wait times at VA hospitals, enable quicker diagnoses of disabilities, and eliminate unnecessary trips to the VA for veterans in rural communities, their offices said in a joint news release.

Additionally, the Franken-Walz legislation requires the VA to complete two reports:

— One that is due 180 days after passage to track the bill’s implementation.

— An annual report that tracks the most common reasons and disabilities for which claims submitted using evidence by local doctors were denied by the VA.

For a veteran to qualify, he or she must be waiting 125 days or more for the VA to process their claim. Until recently, hundreds of thousands of veterans were in the VA benefits backlog.

The VA already has taken steps to address the problem. Last month, VA Secretary Bob McDonald told Congress the VA’s claims backlog — those not acted on within 125 days of filing — had been reduced from its 2013 peak of 611,000 to 82,000.

The VA is requesting a budget of $182 billion next year, a nearly $20 billion funding increase designed in part to tackle outstanding health care claims from veterans.

The VA is earmarking $180 million to the Veterans Benefits Administration to enhance its electronic claims system and $143 million to the Veterans Claims Intake Program to continue converting older, paper records, into digital images and data.

McDonald has said the funding will expand health care options to veterans across the country, continue efforts to end chronic veteran homelessness and further reduce the backlog on first-time claims and also on appeals.

Said Franken in a statement: “We know that our veterans’ battles don’t always end when they return home.”

He added: “Too many return with mental and physical disabilities incurred while protecting our freedoms. All they expect in return for their service is for our nation to keep its promises and get them the VA benefits they’ve earned.”

A release from both offices said the Franken-Walz bill was written after engaging veterans and groups representing them to determine where the problem lies. While they said there is no silver bullet that will end the backlog overnight, it is hoped the legislation will cut through bureaucratic red tape and help veterans get the benefits and care they need.

“After these brave men and women put their life on the line for us, the least we can do is ensure they are getting the benefits they have earned in a timely manner,” said Walz, a retired command sergeant major in the Minnesota Army National Guard and the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress, in a statement.

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