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VA official wants patience; 895,000 claims are pending

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 7:06 p.m.

WASHINGTON — An embattled Veterans Affairs Department official responsible for the growing mountain of benefits claims pleaded on Wednesday for more time to show success in getting them processed.

Allison Hickey, the retired Air Force brigadier general who for two years has been VA's undersecretary for benefits, said she continues to believe it is possible to eliminate the backlog of claims by the end of 2015 and to complete initial claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy.

The heap of pending claims is growing because she has ordered offices to look at the oldest claims first, which means 2-year-old claims now are being completed ahead of newer claims, she said.

“It would have made our productivity look better, but I chose not (to),” she said.

Hickey testified before a skeptical House Veterans' Affairs Committee, a panel whose chairman has called for her removal.

“There are many people, myself included, who are losing patience as we continue to hear the same excuses from VA about increased workload and increased complexity of claims,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman.

“VA's demonstrated history shows its inability or refusal to forecast problems and anticipate its needs,” Miller said. “The only people paying a price for this failure are the veterans. The time for excuses is over.”

Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, the panel's ranking Democrat, said he is skeptical that the department can meet its goal because it would require processing 3.4 million claims in 2½ years.

Hickey's testimony comes as VA has more than 895,000 pending claims, with 70 percent older than 125 days, the agency's self-imposed processing deadline.

As she testified, a veteran sat in a wheelchair in the front row at the hearing, holding a sign that said he has had a claim pending for 2,560 days. He occasionally changed signs, with another that said he also has been waiting 200 days for a heart bypass operation at a Miami veterans hospital.

Not only Congress has the feeling that solving the claims problem would take more than the department can manage. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is pushing for a presidential commission to study the issue and make outside recommendations.

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