The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 12, 2013

Veterans backlog targeted

Casey group aims to speed up treatment

JOHNSTOWN — Pennsylvania veterans, including those from the Laurel Highlands, face one of the nation’s worst backlogs when they attempt to acquire benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat, wants to see that change.

On Thursday, the state’s senior senator, along with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., announced the formation of the VA Backlog Working Group. The organization, consisting of the two senators and their staffers, will gather information from lawmakers, veterans and service organizations. They hope to issue a report, outlining ways to solve the backlog, sometime this fall.

The goal of the group is to fix a problem Casey feels has gotten “exponentially worse” in recent years.

“(Providing benefits) is one of the few ways our government can express a measure of gratitude for those who have done so much on our behalf,” said Casey.

A Veterans Benefits Administration Office of Performance Analysis and Integrity report, which was issued in the spring, showed applicants were waiting an average of 625 days for responses through the Pittsburgh VA Regional Office. The wait was 510.3 days through the Philadelphia headquarters. Those numbers have since decreased to 474 for Pittsburgh and 356 for Philadelphia, according to Casey.

A claim is considered to be backlogged when it has been pending 125 days or longer.

“They’re going in the right direction and that’s good progress, but even at 356 that’s a heck of a lot higher than 125,” said Casey.

The backlog is attributed to a number of factors, including an influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, claims becoming more complex because of serious wounds requiring long-term medical attention, relaxing of post-traumatic stress disorder requirements, an antiquated paper-based VA recording system and an increase of Agent Orange presumptive cases among Vietnam servicemen.

“We’ve been given a lot of excuses,” said Heller, who added, “We’re not really solving the problem.”

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