- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Progress that the Department of Veterans Affairs has made in slashing a huge backlog of benefit requests could be threatened if Congress fails to approve a federal budget by February, VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi said.
Mr. Principi said he increased the agency's compensation and pension work force over the past year by 1,200 persons and they helped cut the backlog of claims from 600,000 in March.
He had planned to hire 150 more, including some registered nurses whose medical training would help them navigate the complex disability-claim system.
"If we don't get a budget by January, February, I'm going to start cutting back [on new hires]," Mr. Principi said recently. "I can't rescind my promise to do this, but clearly if we don't get a budget, it's going to hurt."
When fiscal 2002 concluded in September, VA had reduced the backlog on claims of all types to 470,205. Disability claims fell from a March high of 422,935 to 348,702.
The 107th Congress failed to pass a federal budget, approving only two of 13 spending bills for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. When the 108th session convenes in January, lawmakers will face a $159 billion shortfall.
Mr. Principi has set a goal of reducing the backlog of veterans' claims for disability compensation and pension decisions to 250,000 with a 100-day turnaround time by next summer.
"I would consider my tenure as secretary a failure if I did not dramatically improve and achieve our goals by the time I completed my tenure. I stick to that and adhere to that," Mr. Principi said last week.
At this point, Mr. Principi believes the agency has made significant progress.
He has created a "triage" team based in Cleveland to handle some of the longest-pending cases. Employees now specialize in certain types of claims, expediting those particular claims. He has also pressed for changes in the appeals board, encouraging it to clear up smaller issues on a claim, such as a missing doctor's signature, rather than rejecting it and sending it through the system again.
"They are moving things in the right direction," said Bob Wallace, Veterans of Foreign Wars executive director.
Ronald Conley, national commander for the American Legion, said the agency still has work to do on the number of cases returned by the appeals board because of mistakes in the claims.
"Those claims that are coming back. We are not seeing great progress on those claims," Mr. Conley said.
But the rate of cases returned to regional offices, known as remands, has fallen from 50 percent in January to 12 percent this month, said Terry Jemison, a VA spokesman.
Mr. Principi said he has begun evaluating regional office directors on the timeliness of appeals. He has also put review teams in place at regional offices to try to resolve problems with the case.

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