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Benefits backlog for veterans improves

| Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki vows that major improvements are just over the horizon for veterans seeking benefits and health care.

The 69-year-old retired four-star general and former Army chief of staff said he knows veterans are frustrated by a complicated and lengthy disability claims process and by problems in accessing VA's health care system, but changing a large organization takes time.

Shinseki has ambitious goals: eliminating the claims backlog and homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. Meanwhile, he is expanding access to VA health care and improving programs for female veterans and for veterans in rural areas.

And while he does not have an implementation date, he talks of starting an aggressive mental health program in which VA clinicians would review the medical records of separating veterans to look for evidence of problems that could be early indicators of suicide risk.

Calling the incidence of suicide among current and former service members “unacceptable,” Shinseki said his plan calls for better anticipating who is at risk and contacting them to see whether they are interested in a mental health evaluation or treatment.

It is unclear when this will happen because it depends on the Defense Department and the VA completing a long, complicated process to provide an electronic copy of military medical records to the VA as someone leaves the military.

Efforts to devise a seamless electronic records system have been a lengthy, thorny problem filled with complications, but Shinseki believes the technical issues have been resolved.

The most attention-getting problem at the VA has been the large and growing number of pending benefit claims. About 900,000 claims are pending before the agency, including almost 600,000 waiting for 125 days or more.

Although it's a hard sell to Congress and veterans groups as they watch the number of pending benefits claims rise year after year, Shinseki said the VA is doing better.

He noted that the VA completed about 900,000 claims in 2009 and about 1 million a year in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The problem is that more claims are arriving each year, preventing more significant progress. In 2012, for example, the VA received about 1.3 million claims, he said.

Progress on cutting the backlog depends on how fast a fully electronic processing system can be deployed, as well as the number of claims received, he said. Shinseki said there is a chance of real progress in 2013.

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