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Veterans in Congress call on Obama to shake up the VA

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A bipartisan group of more than two dozen House members, all of whom are military veterans or actively serving in the National Guard, sent a letter to President Obama on Thursday, urging him to take steps to quickly reduce the embarrassing backlog of benefit claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The backlog of claims is staggering and the steady stream of complaints is indicative of a system that lacks efficiency,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marine Corps. “If VA leadership is unwilling to initiate the improvements and changes needed to restore confidence and trust, then the president has the responsibility to take action.”

Mr. Hunter has been harshly critical of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, penning an op-ed article with Concerned Veterans of America President Pete Hegseth earlier this month that called on Mr. Shinseki to resign his post.

The letter also included the signatures of several prominent Democrats, including Reps. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, and Bobby L. Rush of Illinois.

Mr. Obama repeatedly has pledged to make veterans care a top priority of his presidency, and he and Congress have expanded the VA budget each year since 2009 and spared it from sequester cuts.

Last week, Mr. Shinseki faced harsh questioning from House and Senate oversight committees over the bureaucratic red tape he has cited in shifting veterans’ health records from pen and paper to a digital, searchable system aimed at expediting claims and a much faster pace.

Mr. Shinseki responded by saying he would eliminate the glut of nearly a million pending disability claims at the department by 2015. Nearly 630,000 of those claims have been in limbo for more than 125 days, up from 164,000 in October 2009.

During Mr. Shinseki’s tenure, a VA spokeswoman said the department also has increased veterans’ access to care and benefits, reducing the number of homeless veterans by 17 percent.

“We have made progress to better serve veterans today and to transform the department for the future, but there is more work to do,” the spokeswoman said.

Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday announced a set of 10 news bills aimed at addressing the growing backlog of claims.

“We need to address the unacceptably large backlog of claims in order to get veterans the benefits they’ve earned faster. The VA has set an aggressive goal of ending the backlog by 2015, and our efforts are focused on helping them accomplish it,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, Maine Demorat and the ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The legislative package seeks to bolster the VA’s efforts to modernize its health records to hasten the settling of veterans’ claims and compensation.

The bills, which have strong bipartisan support, aim to ensure that the VA has the needed information to accurately process claims by requiring better ineragency collaboration between the VA and entities such as the Department of Defense. They also encourage VA to look at better wasy to process claims in an electronic system and strengthen accountability by requiring the agency to track information in a more efficient and effective way.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, also held a roundtable discussion with veterans groups and several concerned Democrats to address the disability claims backlog.

“We have a solemn responsibility to care for our men and women in uniform, on the battlefield and here at home,” she said. “We must act on the proposal of our Democratic colleagues and strengthen the VA, speed up the claims process, and extend economic opportunity to our veterans. It’s the least we can do for those who sacrifice so much on behalf of our security and freedom.”

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About the Author

Susan Crabtree

Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at scrabtree@washingtontimes.com.

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