- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2010

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio | Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he is making it a top priority this year to tackle the backlog of disability claims that has veterans waiting months - even years - to get financial compensation for their injuries.

Among those waiting for relief are sick Vietnam and Gulf War veterans to whom the former Army commander feels a special allegiance.

“I’m a kid out of the Vietnam era, I just have enough firsthand knowledge of folks walking around with lots of issues. If there’s a generation of veterans that have had a tough row to hoe, it’s the Vietnam generation,” said Mr. Shinseki, 67, as he traveled through snowcapped mountains in Ohio and West Virginia between meetings with veterans.

Mr. Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff who had part of a foot blown off when he was a young officer in Vietnam, was unapologetic about a decision he made in October to make it easier for potentially 200,000 sick Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the Agent Orange herbicide to receive service-connected compensation.

He said it was the right thing to do, even though the volume of claims will grow and it will likely take about two years to get the average claim-processing wait time back to where it is today, about five months.

There’s a chance the former general could also extend similar benefits to veterans from the 1991 Gulf War. A task force he appointed to look at their health is expected to release a report this week, which could eventually lead to thousands of additional sick Gulf War veterans receiving health care and compensation.

Mr. Shinseki said he’s often questioned why 40 years after the Vietnam War and nearly two decades after the Gulf War his agency is still trying to resolve issues related to those veterans’ illnesses.

Vietnam veterans with B-cell leukemias, Parkinson’s diseases and certain kinds of heart disease no longer have to prove their illness was the result of their military service. Mr. Shinseki determined after reviewing a study by the Institute of Medicine that the illnesses should be presumed to have come from the veteran’s war service, making it easier for ex-servicemen to receive financial compensation. The VA currently presumes that 12 other illnesses are linked to Agent Orange exposure.

Mr. Shinseki said he’s looking ahead to make sure Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries don’t have similar problems getting financial compensation.

“I’m also asking the question, how do we ensure that 20 years from now, that future secretary isn’t answering” the same kind of questions about current diseases and conditions, he said.

In recent years, resources have been poured into clearing the backlog, but problems persist. Besides the time it takes to process a claim, there are frequent complaints about lost paperwork and inconsistency in how claims are processed.

To start looking for solutions, Mr. Shinseki’s agency instigated pilot projects in Pittsburgh; Little Rock, Ark.; Providence, R.I.; and Baltimore. The plan is to reduce the backlog by 2015, which means a veteran wouldn’t wait more than four months for a claim to be processed.

The VA and Pentagon are also working together to create a universal electronic system with the goal of solving many of the claims challenges. Some of the collaboration is expected to be rolled out in 2012, although it could take years before the system is fully in place.

Mr. Shinseki, who became the Army’s chief of staff in 1999, is no stranger to change. In that role, he sought to modernize and better prepare the Army for urban combat. In his current position, he has highlighted the challenges veterans face, such as unemployment, suicide and homelessness.

In small gatherings in Chillicothe and Charleston, W.Va., he listened to complaints about the red tape veterans face and explained the work he’s doing to fix the claims backlog.

“We’re going to fine-tune each of the pieces and then put that engine back together again and look for better processing by the end of the year,” Mr. Shinseki said during a morning meeting with employees at the VA hospital in Chillicothe.

The employees listened quietly, not touching the pastries and juice put out for them, as he told them matter-of-factly that he knew the Agent Orange decision was going to add new claims.

“This backlog I just told you I’m going to knock down, I added to it, I know that,” he said.

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