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Opinion Catching Up With Kay: Honor veterans by clearing VA backlog

Senator Kay HaganLike many North Carolinians, I come from a strong military family. My father-in-law was a two-star Marine General. My father and brother served in the Navy, and my husband, Chip, is a Vietnam veteran. I also have two nephews on active duty.

As our servicemembers become veterans—who we honor this Veterans Day, and everyday—we must ensure they receive the benefits they’ve worked so hard to earn. That’s why I was stunned when I discovered that more than 7,000 veterans waited at least a year for the Winston-Salem Regional VA office to process their disability claims; worse yet, some waited as long as two years.

To address these unacceptable delays, I called on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to act. Specifically, I urged him to send a senior official from VA headquarters to the Winston-Salem office to outline a plan to clear the backlog once and for all. In response to this request, he sent Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey and hired 25 new employees for the Winston-Salem Regional Office.

I met personally with Undersecretary Hickey during her recent visit, and I’m pleased the VA is making progress to clear the backlog. The logjam of 700 veterans waiting up to two years has been eliminated. The number of veterans waiting more than a year for a decision has been cut nearly in half. And the Winston-Salem office now processes a claim in 200 days instead of the 329 days it took a year ago.

However, 200 days is still too long. We must do better, and there are commonsense areas for improvement that can get our veterans what they are due faster. The VA is only able to receive service medical records from the Department of Defense (DoD) by paper. The VA estimates that as much as 70 percent of the time it takes to process a claim is time spent waiting for these slow, outdated paper transfers. The problem lies in the fact that each of the military branches and the VA operate on different systems that are not compatible electronically.

The cumbersome, old-fashioned method of transferring records is unacceptable, especially since Congress created a Joint Executive Committee in 2004 — nearly a decade ago — to increase electronic information and resource sharing between the VA and DoD. It was created so we could avoid the very backlog our veterans face today.

The Committee’s plan would establish a system for electronic transfer of medical records by 2015. But I am concerned the initiative in the modernization plan may not meet the deadline, and I’ve written to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to seek a report on the status of the plan that will bring the medical records transfer system into the 21st century and help ensure we live up to our commitment to America’s veterans and their families.

Once veterans receive an initial decision, they shouldn’t face another long delay when they appeal. Yet the backlog of appeals is growing by the day. In fact, more than 11,000 appeals sit in limbo at the Winston-Salem office, and I was shocked to learn that some veterans in N.C. are waiting for a decision on their appeals for up to four years.

We need to address this backlog as well, and I’ve written to Secretary Shinseki to find out how the VA plans to fix this problem.

I will continue to monitor the situation at the Winston-Salem office, which handles claims for most veterans across the state, and I will not be satisfied until the VA eliminates the backlog and refines procedures to prevent future backlogs from developing. We owe it to our veterans.

Follow Senator Kay Hagan on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.





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