GOP Sen.: Veterans' disability claims backlog a "national embarrassment"

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., condemned the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for the “infamous” backlog of disability claims that leaves many disabled veterans waiting months for their paperwork to be processed, calling the situation a “national embarrassment” in the weekly Republican address on Saturday.

Burr noted that Congress has increased funding for the VA over the last five years by roughly $600 billion to make the agency more responsive to veterans’ needs, but he added, “that surge has not been matched with an equivalent surge in responsiveness from the Veterans’ Administration.”

In 2013, according to an annual report from the VA, it took an average of 378 days for the department to process a claim to completion, a number that has increased sharply since President Obama took office in 2009. A claim is considered backlogged if it has been pending for longer than 125 days.

The VA attributed the increase to a new focus on processing claims that have been pending for one or two years, saying the continued emphasis on processing older claims “will improve future performance.”

In his address, Burr credited comedian Jon Stewart for bringing attention to the problem, saying a series of “biting monologues” on Stewart’s “The Daily Show” last year “finally elevated the problem to the president’s desk and spurred his VA secretary into action.”

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has promised to eliminate the backlog of disability claims by 2015, and the department has said it is on track to meet that goal.

Still, Burr added, “When it takes a comedian to garner a response from our government, we are in bad shape. While the backlog has begun to decline, we still have nearly 700,000 veterans and their families waiting for answers.”

For some veterans, Burr warned, the lengthy wait time can be far more than a mere inconvenience. “These delays have real-life implications for veterans, especially for those at risk of lapsing back into isolation or a downward spiral that can be difficult to stop,” he said. 

Mr. Obama has vowed to make eliminating the backlog a top priority of his stewardship of the VA. In August, during a speech before the Disabled American Veterans convention in Orlando, he noted, “Finally, the backlog is shrinking – in the last five months alone, it’s down nearly 20 percent.” 

“We’re not where we need to be,” he said, “but we are making progress.”

Burr also stressed the importance of job training programs for veterans in his address, commending states that have passed laws to issue certifications to veterans for the skills they gained while serving in the military. “Without reforms such as these that address the problem at its root,” he said, “many veterans will end up retaking classes or tests they’ve already passed while in service.”

In his own address on Saturday, the president reprised some of his State of the Union themes, again dwelling on the need to expand opportunity and upward mobility.

He discussed his push for an “across-the-board reform” of job training programs and a renewed emphasis on high-tech education to better prepare American children to compete in the global economy.

He also cited a recent meeting at the White House with business leaders and CEOs during which he leaned on the business community to help the long-term unemployed find work.

“And I’m going to keep asking students and parents and business leaders to help,” he said, “because there are millions of Americans outside Washington who are tired of stale political arguments, ready to move this country forward, and determined to restore the founding vision of opportunity for all.”

  • Jake Miller

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