Pa. Senator Casey pushes lawmakers on VA disability bill
Sen. Bob Casey Jr. called on fellow lawmakers Monday to act swiftly on a bill that promises to help reduce months-long backlogs endured by veterans with disability claims.
More than 6,000 veterans in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia are waiting 163 days on average to have their disability claims processed, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The average in Philadelphia was about 266 days, or 26 days longer than the national average, for backlogged claims last week, Casey said.
“We need the VA to be honest about the size of the problem and transparent about it,” Casey said in a conference call on the eve of Veterans Day. “If you’re not honest about the problem, you’re not going to fix the problem.”
Casey said wait times remain “totally unacceptable” despite showing improvement. VA statistics in April revealed three of every five claims in the Pittsburgh area were backlogged. The typical veteran filing at that point for disability benefits could expect to wait 336 days, a Trib analysis showed.
The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System referred questions about backlog statistics to VA offices in Washington. Since 2013, the VA has cut by 60 percent nationally the number of new claims that are at least 125 days old, spokesman Steve Westerfeld said.
He said the figure peaked at 611,000 cases in March 2013 but has fallen as the department switches from paper-based to electronic processing and requires many VA employees to work overtime. The VA is on track to eliminate the backlog by 2015, Westerfeld said.
Casey urged a hearing within weeks on the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, which he introduced in March with Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican. The bill would mandate structural changes in regional VA offices to ensure fast claims processing and better collaboration with organizations such as the American Legion to steer veterans toward claims assistance and force the federal government to make veterans’ benefits a priority, among other provisions.
Twenty-one senators, including Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, have signed on to back the legislation, which is pending before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
A committee spokesman did not immediately comment Monday on the bill. Casey said the committee has been preoccupied with confronting other problems in the VA, in particular delays for initial medical appointments. He wants disability benefits claims to be processed within a few weeks at the most.
“We need to act,” he said. “Speeches are nice. Words are nice. Actions matter more.”
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or [email protected].