Column: It's time to end the veterans benefits backlog
BY U.S. SEN. AL FRANKEN AND U.S. REP. TIM WALZ
WASHINGTON — With the hard-earned experience of two major wars over the last 12 years, Americans have developed a renewed understanding of the need to support our service members in battle and throughout their active-duty service.
Unfortunately, our warriors’ battles don’t always end when they return home. We’ve heard from many veterans who have returned bearing the scars of war — mental and physical disabilities incurred while protecting our freedoms. All they expect is that, in return for their service, our nation keeps its promises to them.
With the end of the war in Iraq, and the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, the number of disabled veterans who need care is increasing exponentially. Despite the fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is processing more claims today than at any time in history, veterans are waiting too long to receive the benefits they have earned, creating an unnecessary financial hardship for veterans and their families.
The VA reports that 554,105 veterans have been waiting longer than 125 days to have their claim adjudicated. This is unacceptable, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired U.S. Army General who has dedicated his life to military service and taking care of our brave warriors, agrees. While the VA is currently making progress, we believe that there are commonsense measures Congress can undertake to bolster the VA’s efforts to ensure our veterans are getting the care they need in a more-timely manner.
Cutting through red tape
In response to Minnesota veterans and veterans’ organizations who have told us about the hardships the VA backlog imposes on veterans, we introduced legislation to help speed up the process.
We have introduced identical bipartisan measures in the House and Senate known as the “Quicker Benefits Delivery Act” that will remove several hurdles to getting claims processed quickly. Our legislation also ensures that disabled veterans can get at least some help and support while their claims are still being adjudicated.
First, our measure would allow local doctors to conduct disability medical examinations for veterans. This conserves VA resources, cuts back on long wait times at VA hospitals, enables quicker diagnoses of disabilities, and eliminates unnecessary trips to the VA for veterans in rural communities.
The bill also requires the VA to award interim benefits to clearly disabled veterans whose cases are still undergoing review to determine the full extent of their disabilities. This will allow veterans to receive important benefits quicker, while the VA works to review their claims and make a final decision.
And for veterans who go back to school under the GI Bill, our bill authorizes the VA to pay housing benefits more quickly so that student veterans can pay their rent on time.
In June, while we worked in Washington, D.C. to advance our legislation, our staff members in Minnesota met with veterans and their advocates in Worthington and other communities around the state to get input on the backlog and discuss our efforts to end it.
Our goal with this legislation is simple: to uphold the promises we’ve made to our veterans by ending the backlog and getting them the benefits they have earned and deserve.
Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. Tim Walz represents Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House.