Serving western Pennsylvania veterans is one of my top priorities as a member of Congress, and it is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Veterans Day is an annual opportunity for us all to engage with those who gave so much to protect our way of life.
I first talked with Gary, a Vietnam veteran from the North Hills, during a telephone town hall earlier this year. Gary was battling cancer and needed help with the VA. He was losing hope.
Gary stopped by the office a few days later. He shared some of his memories from the Vietnam War and explained the problems he was having with the VA.
We were able to help him secure some of the benefits that were so long overdue. Sadly, he lost his battle with cancer only a few months later. I still remember our conversation. I will always remember Gary.
Gary may no longer be with us, but his memory lives on in the hundreds of thousands of veterans in western Pennsylvania and millions of veterans across the nation. It is our solemn obligation to support them while they are deployed and to walk with them when they come home.
Unfortunately, veterans in western Pennsylvania and around the nation are forced to endure excessive wait times for their disability claims to be processed by the VA.
Some progress has been made. However, roughly 400,000 veterans around the nation and 4,700 veterans served by the Pittsburgh VA Regional Office are still part of the backlog. Veterans in western Pennsylvania must wait almost 400 days for their claims to be processed.
That is unacceptable. Our veterans deserve much better.
Since taking office, I have worked with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to address the backlog and other issues affecting veterans.
Earlier this year, over 160 of my Republican and Democrat colleagues and I sent a letter to President Obama urging him to address the backlog.
This summer, I offered an amendment that prohibits performance bonuses to senior executives at the VA in the next fiscal year. This money would be better spent serving veterans. The amendment was included in legislation funding for the VA that passed in the House by an overwhelmingly bipartisan 421-4 vote.
More recently, my colleagues and I passed legislation to address the backlog. This legislation, which I strongly urged my colleagues to support, increases reporting and oversight at the VA, improves coordination between the VA and other federal agencies, provides more training for VA claims processors, and establishes a task force to look for other ways to address the backlog.
Together, these actions will improve customer service and results for our veterans and their families. The Senate should pass the bill quickly and send it to the president for his signature.
In addition, I am working with VA officials in western Pennsylvania to learn more about what is being done, and see what resources they need to improve customer service for our veterans and their families.
Many veterans have called and visited the offices in Johnstown, Beaver and Ross Township. Many others, like John (not his real name), a Vietnam veteran, shared their stories with me at events like Coffee with Keith. I first met John at a Coffee with Keith event in Somerset County. He had been waiting for more than 500 days for his disability claim to be processed. Once we engaged on his behalf, the VA expedited John’s claim and resolved his case a few months later.
My staff and I are here to help. If you are a veteran in need of assistance, please call or visit your 12th District office.
In addition, I will be hosting a special veterans telephone town hall on Nov. 18. Veterans are encouraged to sign up on the website at Rothfus.house.gov.
You, too, can show your appreciation for our veterans by taking time to listen to their stories or by volunteering with a veterans service organization like the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, Wounded Warrior Project, Vietnam Veterans of America, or Fisher House Foundation.
While we celebrate Veterans’ Day today, we should be sure to thank and serve our veterans and their families each and every day of the year.
U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus of Allegheny County represents the 12th Congressional District, which includes parts of Cambria and Somerset counties.