February 7, 2008 – WASHINGTON (AP) — New Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake pledged Thursday to trim more than five weeks off the time it now takes to get the first check to a war veteran who files a disability claim.
In his first appearance before Congress since becoming secretary, Peake also sought to assure lawmakers that President Bush’s proposed 2009 VA budget of $91 billion would be sufficient to meet the growing demands of veterans of a protracted Iraq war. The proposal is a 3.7 percent increase from the previous year, but several lawmakers have criticized it as inadequate after factoring in inflation.
Peake wants to reduce wait times from roughly 180 days to 145 days by the start of next year. He cited aggressive efforts to hire staff, noting the VA will have 3,100 new staff by 2009. The VA also is working to get greater online access to Pentagon medical information that he says will allow staff to process claims faster and move toward a system of electronic filing of claims.
Peake promised to “virtually eliminate” the current list of 69,000 veterans who have waited more than 30 days for an appointment to get VA medical care. Such long waits runs counter to department policy, and a group of Iraq war veterans have filed a lawsuit alleging undue delays. He said the VA plans to open 64 new community-based outpatient clinics this year and 51 next year to improve access to health care in rural areas.
“We will take all measures necessary to provide them with timely benefits and services, to give them complete information about the benefits they have earned through their courageous service, and to implement streamlined processes free of bureaucratic red tape,” Peake said in testimony prepared for a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Thursday.
Peake took over the agency amid criticism the VA was not doing enough to meet the growing needs of war veterans, particularly the thousands returning home injured from Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent months, Bush has released, at the request of Congress, $3.7 billion in emergency money for additional services for injured veterans.
“I am concerned that this budget proposal contains cuts to veterans’ programs,” said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., who chairs the House panel. “Although the request includes an increase for health care, it does not fully fund the needs of America’s veterans.”