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VA fails to improve processing times

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 6:28 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The time needed to process veterans' disability claims shot up by nearly 40 percent last year despite years of effort by federal officials to streamline and shorten the work, records show.

The times necessary to process education benefits and burial benefits, as well as the time needed to wind through the Department of Veterans Affairs appeals process, also increased in fiscal 2012.

The disability processing time is closely watched by Congress and veterans' advocates as a measure of VA efficiency. In fiscal 2012, the average days to complete a VA disability compensation or pension claim rose to 262 days, up from 188 days in fiscal 2011, according to a recently completely VA performance report.

The 262-day average is the highest that measure has been in at least the past 20 years for which numbers were available.

The VA's long-term goal is to get the processing time to an average of 90 days.

“The entire system is a mess,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a support and advocacy group. “They've been saying now for 10 years that it'll get better, and it still doesn't get better, and we've seen tremendous frustration from our members in the last few months. It's reached a breaking point.”

The VA said it is working to speed its decision-making process and is in the midst of an overhaul of its claims system. It eventually will end its reliance on paper-based processing and reconfigure the way claims move through 56 regional offices that handle them.

“We recognize that from the standpoint of the veterans, they are waiting too long, and that's unacceptable,” said Diana Rubens, who helps oversee the VA's regional offices. “We've got to transform how we do things. We know that fixing decades-old problems is not going to be easy.”

America's veterans are eligible for a range of benefits, from access to the VA's well-regarded medical system to lifetime payments for disabilities suffered during military service to access to education, life insurance and home loan programs.

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