VA Secretary Vows Action on Benefits Backlog

Government Executive

March 3, 2009 – The American Legion, in Washington for its annual lobbying push, received pledges of support on Tuesday from members of Congress and the Veterans Affairs secretary, with an emphasis on improving VA’s processing of claims for benefits and providing care for veterans suffering from psychological stress and traumatic brain injuries.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told attendees he has “taken on the issue of the backlog” in handling benefit claims but conceded he does not understand the problem, which has been the top complaint of veterans organizations for decades.

Shinseki added he is developing “a credible 2010 budget” but offered no details on its shape. Last week’s budget outline released by OMB would provide $52.5 billion for fiscal 2010.

Shinseki warned that the budget pressure from the economic downturn “will likely collide with the new demands” on VA, such as treating post traumatic stress disorder.

But Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said that “the idea that we would balance the budget on the back of veterans is unacceptable.” Walz said VA is “almost criminally behind in processing claims” and promised to ensure it does better. He also protested the fact that Congress has been late approving VA funding 22 of the last 23 years and vowed passage this year would be prompt.

Rep. John Fleming, R-La., criticized President Obama’s proposed healthcare reform, although he backs Obama’s push for electronic healthcare records, which the military uses. Fleming also opposed the recurrent effort to raise the premiums for higher-income veterans in the Tricare healthcare plan.

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the military and the VA must find better ways to diagnose and treat PTSD and brain injuries, citing the case of an Iowa veteran who committed suicide after his ailment was not treated. He noted he had co-authored legislation with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would require “new ways to reach out to veterans before it’s too late.”

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