- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2001

Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi said yesterday one of his highest priorities is to cut by half the backlog of 500,000 disability claims filed by veterans.

"Clearly, we have a real crisis on our hands and we've got to take immediate steps to reduce that backlog," Mr. Principi told reporters and editors at a luncheon interview at The Washington Times.

New demands from Congress to extend benefits for the community of 25 million veterans and their families, as well as productivity problems within the department, have caused the backlog, Mr. Principi said.

Claims currently require from six to seven months to settle and appeals can take up to two years, he said.

One federal appeals judge told the secretary it has become almost routine for some claims to be dismissed because veterans died before their cases were heard.

Mr. Principi faults the Clinton administration for not dealing with the problem. "I don't believe it was addressed to the degree it should have been in the previous administration," he said. "I inherited it, and I need to fix it and we will do so."

Mr. Principi said he also is conducting a review of the department's health care system, as was mandated by President Bush.

He wants to "bring good business sense" to the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy and will privatize some of the department's services if that will improve efficiency.

The department has adopted a new computer software program that sharply cut employee productivity. "It was designed to improve the quality of our work and it improved the quality, but it caused productivity to be cut by at least a third, maybe half," he said.

Other processes in the system for handling benefits "have caused a stranglehold" over the entire system, he said.

"We have shot ourselves in the foot by implementing programs that may be visionary and strategically sound for the long term, but have a real, real short-term negative impact on productivity."

A commission has been set up to address the backlog in order to cut the number of claims to 250,000 by 2003.

The Veterans Affairs Department is in charge of a range of programs for veterans, including health benefits, pensions, burials, home loans, education benefits and vocational rehabilitation.

Among the department's client population of 24.4 million veterans are 5.5 million World War II veterans (who are dying at the rate of 1,500 a day); 5,300 World War I veterans who are 100 or older; 3.9 million Korean War veterans; 8 million Vietnam veterans; 1.7 million Gulf war veterans; and one widow of a Civil War veteran, whom she married when he was 70 and she was 13. The last Union veteran died in 1956 and the last Confederate veteran died in 1958.

Mr. Principi said the department is beginning a consolidation of its 172 hospitals nationwide and preparing to better serve an aging veteran population. By 2010, almost half the veteran population will be over 65 and a significant portion will be over 85, he said. The biggest shift in infrastructure will be a change from hospitals to assisted-living facilities.

On another issue, the veterans secretary also said that despite spending some $150 million in research, the cause of Gulf war illness remains unknown.

"We don't have any concrete answers as to what has happened there," Mr. Principi said.

The illness has produced symptoms that include fatigue, aching muscles, poor sleep and irritability in some 70,000 of the 700,000 military personnel who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Mr. Principi said one theory being studied is that a combination of factors produce the syndrome, including drugs taken by service members, insect bites from sand fleas or smoke from oil fires set by retreating Iraqi forces in Kuwait.

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