Friday, June 21, 2013 | 6:15 p.m.
Nevada’s delegation is applauding the Department of Veterans Affairs news that it has cleared all but 49 of Nevada's benefits claims that had been kicking around the process for two years or more.
But they are also wondering: If the VA could clear 785 of the claims pending for two years or more under their new initiative, why did it take so long to do it?
“We appreciate the focus you have placed on bringing down these backlog numbers,” Nevada Sen. Dean Heller wrote in a letter to VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey he co-authored with Pennsylvania Democrat Sen. Bob Casey. “Were any of these claims unnecessarily delayed during the claim development and ratings process? If so, what was the cause of this delay?”
The VA’s Reno office, which handles Nevada veterans’ benefits claims, has one of the worst backlog rates in the country. Over 10,000 veterans are part of a backlog that just a few months ago, stretched for an average of 475 days per claim, according to numbers compiled by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
The volume of still-pending cases puts a bit of a damper on what was otherwise welcome news.
“Ninety-seven percent of the ‘older than two years’ claims have now been completed by the VA, and they are now working to complete those older than one year, which is welcome news to Nevada veterans,” Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid said in statement Thursday. “That being said, there is still more work to do.”
That work is not simply in reducing the backlog. Lawmakers also want to ensure that as the VA is racing to issue decisions and clear its backlog, it establishes review standards that are not only swift, but fair to the veterans being processed.
“I’m concerned that an increased focus on claims has led to a decreased focus on veterans’ appeals … I routinely hear from veterans in Southern Nevada and around the country who are waiting far too long to receive a decision on their appeals,” said Nevada Rep. Dina Titus, the ranking member of the House subcommittee that handles veterans benefits. “Improving the speed and efficiency of both the claims process and the appeal system will be small step to recognize these men and women for their sacrifices.”