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Denham co-authors VA bill to tackle backlog
U.S. Representative Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) co-authored the Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, in an effort to reduce the backlogs found in many of the Veterans Affairs Regional Offices nationwide. - photo by Journal file photo

As millions of veterans continually file disability claims throughout the nation, thousands of claims have been delayed or inaccurately processed, adversely impacting many veterans seeking benefits and medical examinations.

In an effort to reduce the backlogs found in many of the Veterans Affairs Regional Offices nationwide, U.S. Representatives Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) and Tim Walz (D-MN) have co-authored the Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, which took center stage during a congressional hearing on Wednesday in the House of Representatives.

“This bill is a step forward in our work to give our nation’s veterans quicker access to the healthcare they deserve,” said Denham and Walz. “It will cut through red tape and conserve VA resources by allowing veterans to see their own doctors, decreasing the wait and travel times that many vets in rural communities like ours experience.”

In California, the Oakland Veterans Affairs Regional Office oversees the backlog of VA centers from Bakersfield to the Oregon border, while also managing services for approximately 1.8 million California veterans. Although there are 57 VA Regional Offices nationwide, the Oakland office has come under major scrutiny in recent years after the 2012 Inspector General’s report found the office as having the second-worst backlog among the nation’s benefit centers, with an average wait time of nearly a year for claim processing.

As of Dec. 2011, the Oakland VARO had just fewer than 32,500 claims pending an average of 269 days – 89 days more than the national target of 180. While three of the 10 oldest claims were at medical facilities awaiting veterans’ medical examinations, the seven remaining claims had been pending from 1,040 to 3,187 days. Additionally, the IG report found that the Oakland center was not conducting a monthly review of claims older than one year as required by VBA policy.

According to the IG report, the processing delays occurring at the Oakland office were due to “unclear guidance,” resulting in untimely benefit payments for hundreds of veterans. In addition to the delayed processing times, the Oakland center was also having trouble with their staff’s accuracy, as staff members incorrectly processed 39 percent of the sampled 90 disability claims within the IG report and 53 percent of the temporary disability evaluations. Significantly affecting veterans’ benefits, such processing inaccuracies resulted in several under and overpayments, including one veteran who had been underpaid $8,120 over a period of 7 months.

While the Oakland office has set a goal to have no claims pending for more than 120 days with a 98 percent accuracy rate by 2015, the latest weekly VA report shows the center as still having over 12,000 claims pending longer than 125 days, and 20,515 overall. Although the backlogs for VA centers throughout Northern California have shrunk since the 2012 IG report, the Oakland office continues to be under strict surveillance, perhaps even more than usual since the center continues operating without a permanent executive director in place since December, when former director Douglas Bragg retired.

With the Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, Denham and Walz are aiming to help speed up the VA’s current efforts to reduce benefit backlogs not only at the Oakland office, but the other 56 VAROs nationwide by allowing local doctors to conduct disability medical examinations for veterans. It’s a solution that they hope will conserve VA resources, cut back on long wait times at VA hospitals, enable quicker diagnoses of disabilities, and eliminate unnecessary trips to the VA for veterans in rural communities.

“While there is no silver bullet to solve this problem, we believe this common sense solution will speed up the VA’s current efforts to tackle the backlog and urge the House to take action on our legislation without delay,” said Denham and Walz.

U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) is also working alongside Reps. Denham and Walz on the legislation, helping introduce companion legislation in the Senate.