HELENA — For decades, the Veterans Benefits Administration has had a backlog of claims for disabilities and other needs.
Thursday, VA Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs Tommy Sowers visited Helena, meeting with Lt. Gov. John Walsh and staff from the office of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. He also went to Fort Harrison, where VBA staff have implemented a new electronic claims-processing system, moving away from a system that involves stacks of paper several inches high for a single claim.
“We’re moving from that 19th-century system to a 21st-century system,” he said. “I’m out here to see exactly how it’s working,”
The backlog, he said, has been decades in the making. But VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has vowed to reach, by 2015, a goal of a 125-day turnaround for most claims, down from a typical six-month turnaround over the last 10 years. And right now, it’s a nine-month turnaround, in part because the VA has opened disability benefits to more veterans with a wider range of conditions.
The VA has made the decision to allow more veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to qualify for disability benefits, as well as Vietnam veterans with conditions related to Agent Orange and other circumstances.
“Both the secretary and the president know this claims backlog is unacceptable,” he said. “This year is the critical year for fixing it.”
The VA has put its electronic claims system in 46 of 56 regional offices, and by the end of the year it will be in all 56, he said.
“We’ve sent the backlog come down in the last few months, and we want to continue that trend,” he said.
Sowers is an 11-year active-duty veteran and a Green Beret, with a pair of deployments and Iraq and another in Bosnia. At 37, he is the youngest assistant secretary in the VA.