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Toomey, Casey back sweeping overhaul of VA to further reduce disability backlog

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Monday, April 7, 2014, 11:27 p.m.
 

A coalition of senators and congressmen is preparing for a possible larger overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying a 44 percent cut the agency reported making to reduce the backlog of first-time and supplemental disability claims by former military members is not good enough.

Sen. Pat Toomey, a Lehigh Valley Republican and the son of a Marine, told reporters on Monday that large-scale reforms designed to dramatically revamp the VA are ahead if it can't slash deeper into the backlog of 337,357 claims languishing at 56 regional offices nationwide.

“It's not acceptable for men and women who served their country and risked their lives, often with serious deleterious effects from their service, to wait for long periods of time to have their claims decided,” Toomey said.

Toomey told the Tribune-Review that he plans to join Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, in co-sponsoring legislation to revamp VA's handling of benefits claims. Casey's proposed 21st Century Veterans Benefit Delivery Act calls on the Government Accountability Office, the investigative wing of Congress, to survey how VA regional offices handled the backlog before proposing uniform changes to spur more accurate and timely decisions.

Casey's bill has been championed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and several other military groups.

“Veterans deserve a comprehensive and permanent solution to this problem, and my hope is that this legislation will ensure we reach that goal,” Casey told the Trib.

Last week, the VA announced that vets are waiting 119 days less than they did a year ago for decisions on initial disability filings. Officials have blamed the backlog that peaked last year at more than 611,000 claims on a record number of new and complex filings since 2011.

In Pittsburgh, VA statistics show three out of every five claims are backlogged. The typical veteran filing for disability benefits in Pittsburgh can expect to wait 336 days for an agency decision.

A Tribune-Review investigation found the appeals process for rejected claims takes about 3½ years, and some veterans, and even their spouses, die while waiting.

“We will continue to work with our partners, stakeholders and Congress to execute our plan to end the backlog,” VA spokesman Randal Noller said.

Toomey said key senators, including members of the Veterans Services Committee, formed a Backlogs Working Group that meets regularly to brainstorm VA reforms. He and other senators are willing to perform a “massive overhaul” of the agency to streamline claims and appeals but first need to see “data-based conclusions” about sensible reforms, Toomey said.

Darin Selnick, an independent consultant for Concerned Veterans of America and a former Air Force officer and VA executive from 2001-2009, said the VA has been caught in a bureaucratic cycle for years.

“I think what you're hearing is that fed-up members of Congress and their staffers is such that you will start to see bills coalescing together into a set of legislative reforms,” he said.

Carl Prine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or cprine@tribweb.com.

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