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Senators want VA backlog erased

| Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 8:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has decided to buy a new computerized health record system to be able to better share and merge its data with the Department of Veterans Affairs, but officials cautioned that it is part of a “long-term modernization” effort and would not help ease the backlog in VA disability claims.

The announcement Wednesday was made on a day when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki were called to Capitol Hill to explain to frustrated lawmakers what progress they are making in speeding up decisions on disability claims applications.

Veterans groups and congressional lawmakers have criticized the VA for the number of disability claims pending longer than 125 days — about 570,000, nearly two-thirds of all claims pending.

Hagel and Shinseki acknowledged that there is a lot more work to do. But Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said a sense of urgency is needed. “We want fire in the belly from the agencies and we want action,” she said.

Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said all members of her committee were present to talk to Hagel and Shinseki in what she called a first-ever roundtable for every agency involved in veterans issues. That included the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration.

“We know they're stressed, we know they're strained,” she said of the federal agencies. “But we have put a lot of money in the federal checkbook to make sure they have the right personnel and the right technology. Now they've got to use it in the right way to shrink this backlog.”

Officials have said repeatedly that the backlog is owed at least in part to the lack of an integrated record system between the Pentagon and VA. The two departments have computer systems that don't talk to each other, delaying the transfer of service members' records when they leave the military and come under the VA's care.

The Pentagon said in a statement earlier Wednesday that Hagel had ordered the Defense Department to get bids for development of the new Pentagon health records system.

The statement said the system — along with efforts already under way to speed service to veterans — will improve continuity of care but does not address “the problem of the existing VA backlog.”

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