Rich Pedroncelli / AP
Wednesday, May 6, 2015 | 12:30 p.m.
WASHINGTON — As veterans in Nevada and across the nation continue to face long waits for disability and pension claims, Sen. Dean Heller, R-NV, and eight other senators are calling for an independent audit of all the nation's regional Veterans Affairs offices.
Heller, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Sen. Pat Toomey, D-Pa. and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, announced legislation Wednesday that would have the independent Government Affairs Office audit all 56 regional VA benefits offices. If the bill is passed by Congress, the audit would bring to light best-and-worst practices as well as any management problems.
"This isn't a witch hunt," Heller said. "We want to assist the VA."
The audit is the senators' latest push in a years-long process to try to cut down on claims backlogs of more than a year by an overwhelmed VA. The VA considers a claim backlogged if it takes more than 125 days to process. The Reno regional office consistently ranks among the worst performing.
In 2013, veterans waited an average of 375 days for the VA to process their claims, according to a VA backlog working group report Heller and Casey issued Wednesday. That same year, Heller and Casey started a working group to try to address the problem, and in 2014 some of their changes were implemented by the VA and adopted in a VA reform bill Congress passed in response to malpractice at VA health care clinics. Today, veterans wait an average of 175 days.
But more needs to be done, especially in anticipation of a surge of veterans expected as the country winds down its military action abroad, they said.
Rep. Dina Titus, a Las Vegas Democrat, has also called for reforms to the VA's backlog process.
She's focused on the appeals process: In January she introduced legislation to create a task force to find ways to improve the process, and she's asked VA Secretary Robert McDonald to immediately hire more staff to handle the appeals backlog.
All this comes as an VA Inspector General investigation into the Philadelphia VA office recently found chronic mismanagement and malpractice there, including employees changing dates of claims, hiding mail and filing improper payments.