On May 21st over 300 veterans attended a Town Hall meeting at the War Memorial Building here in San Francisco. The forum, hosted by Congresswoman Jackie Speier & Congresswoman Barbara Lee, focused on the back-log of compensation and pension claims at the Veteran Affairs Regional Office in Oakland. The VA official responsible for the Oakland office as well as the VA Western Regional Director were present to answer questions from the Congresswomen and the veterans that packed the forum. The veterans shared their stories of how the VA had ignored, mishandled, or in some cases taken years to adjudicate claims while the veteran continued to suffer from their physical or mental wounds incurred while serving their country.
Appalled by the VA’s failure of their “duty to assist”, Congresswoman Lee returned to Washington D.C. with the goal and promise of correcting this travesty. On May 31st, Congresswoman Lee introduced an amendment to the 2013 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill (H.R. 5854) which requires the VA to eliminate all backlogged claims within thirty (30) days after the passage of H.R. 5854. Additionally, it will require the VA to report back to Congress in six months detailing the changes made in claims processing and training.
Bay Citizen - Last night, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce the time it takes to process veterans’ disability claims. A report accompanying the legislation also called on the VA to eliminate backlogs at the Oakland regional office, where veterans can wait years for a decision on their claims.
In April, The Bay Citizen revealed that the backlog of disability claims had ballooned to 870,000 nationwide under the Obama administation. In the Bay Area, returning soldiers wait an average of 320 days for a decision on their disability claims.
A day after the story ran, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it would overhaul operations at 12 of their offices, paying special attention to updating the ways that claims are processed. The department said it would make sure all offices process claims online by the end of 2013.
But the first offices they planned to upgrade did not include Oakland and Seattle, the offices with the biggest backlogs. This apparent oversight prompted Representative Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) and 15 other California Congressmen to fire off a letter to Erik K. Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, urging him to “send immediate help” to the Oakland office.
In May, the VA’s Office of the Inspector General found the Oakland office lacked effective controls and failed to process many claims accurately. It also found that some Oakland office staff members may not have completed required training to ensure they provide accurate service to veterans.
In a report accompanying the legislation, the House Appropriations Committee called on the Oakland office to address the accuracy and training issues and detail its efforts to eliminate the backlog within 30 days after the law takes effect and improve the accuracy of claims processing within six months.
The report also calls on the VA to prioritize bringing the worst offices online first.
Additionally, the committee directs the VA Office of the Inspector General to complete a report due 90 days after the bill becomes law to assess the effectiveness of the paperless system in eliminating long wait times. The office must also determine whether the VA will be able to meet its goals of eliminating the backlog and increasing accuracy rates by 2015.
The bill now goes to the U.S. Senate.