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Fix veterans’ benefits delays, VA told

Fifteen members of Ohio’s congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans, sent a letter Monday to the leader of the Department of Veteran Affairs saying the lengthy backlog in VA claims for veterans is “unacceptable.”

The letter was sent a day after the Dayton Daily News published an examination of the delays Ohio veterans face when they file a disability claim that on average takes the Veterans Benefits Administration 278 days to complete, longer than the national average.

Veterans have 2.1 million claims pending before the Veterans Benefits Administration. Ohio veterans wait 278 days, or 16 days longer than the national average for a response, according to VA figures.

Some veterans and their families profiled Sunday in the newspaper reported delays of a year or longer.

“It’s just unacceptable how long these people have to wait just to get benefits they are entitled to,” U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, said in an interview Monday. “We’ve got a fair number of them (in his congressional district) and it happens far too frequently. Chabot represents all of Warren County and part of Hamilton County in the 1st District.

“We’re talking about people who have served their country … and I think they deserve to be treated fairly by their government,” the congressman said.

The Jan. 28 letter, sent to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, said some Ohio veterans are forced to wait “an unprecedented amount of time” of nearly a year for benefits claims to be processed. “This is unacceptable, and our veterans deserve better and more efficient service from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” the delegation wrote.

The lawmakers urged the VA to submit a claims backlog report, mandated under the defense spending bill, because “it is imperative that you and your staff act quickly and decisively to implement the report’s findings and ensure veterans and their families are taken care of in a timely manner.”

The VA acknowledged it received the letter Monday and will respond to congressional leaders’ concerns, according to VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz in Washington, D.C.

In an email, Lutz said the VA will transition to a digital, paperless system to speed claims processing. The system is expected to be installed in a total of 56 regional offices by the end of the year.

“We recognize that many veterans are waiting too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” the VA said in a statement. “That’s unacceptable, and that is why the VA is building a strong foundation for a paperless, digital disability claims system — a lasting solution that will transform how we operate and eliminate the claims backlog. Fixing a decades-old problem isn’t easy, but we have an aggressive plan that is on track to succeed and achieve the secretary’s goal – claim completion in 125 days with 98 percent accuracy in 2015.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, was among those who signed the letter. Turner was traveling Monday and unavailable for comment, according to spokesman Tom Crosson. The delegation has had “longstanding concerns on the backlog” and began working on the communication to Shinseki last week, Crosson said in an email.

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, also signed the letter and said that serving veterans “is a top priority for our office.”

“Any way we can eliminate unnecessary delays and streamline the process will help us better assist those who served us. I hope the VA acts quickly on this matter,” Jordan said in a statement.

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