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July 22, 2014

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D.C. lawmakers want answers on spike in veterans benefits wait times

Across the country, veterans are facing a benefits crisis as they wait for claims to be processed.

But nowhere has it been quite as bad as in Nevada, where more than 10,000 veterans are part of a backlog that stretches for an average of 475 days per claim, according to data compiled by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Over the past 18 months, the backlog has grown by 37 percent, and in some categories, the wait time for Nevada veterans is a nationwide high of 681 days.

In the past week, Nevada’s representatives in the House and Senate have been plying administration officials for answers about why the Reno office, which processes benefit claims for Nevada, is so far behind.

“Over the past five years, I’ve consistently asked them, what do you need. What do you need? Do you need more individuals, resources, bodies — what is it going to take to fix this backlog?” Sen. Dean Heller said in a Senate hearing last week. “And they’ve consistently told me, we’re going to solve this without additional resources.”

Allison Hickey, Veterans Affairs undersecretary for benefits, told Heller at the time that problems in the Reno office were due to rising demand and a need for “some automation ... to take some of the load of a person manually doing this much paper out of the system.”

But on Wednesday, Hickey — this time appearing before the House Veterans Affairs committee, told Nevada Rep. Dina Titus a slightly different story.

“Part of what happened in Reno, straight-upfront, is when you have an employee or two who moves ... and when you have people who retire, and it all piles on at the same time, that creates a problem in terms of being able to complete production,” Hickey said in response to Titus’ questions about whether the VA was setting benchmarks to increase its rate of production, and how it planned to meet them.

Hickey explained that the Reno office had recently lost two staffers. But she added that the VA had enlisted the help of the Boise office — which with a backlog of 2,200 veterans waiting an average 204 days, is doing comparatively better — to help Nevada meet the VA’s department-wide goal of eliminating its benefits backlog by 2015.

But lawmakers remained skeptical — and questioned Hickey and the VA’s ability to meet those goals, given seemingly ponderous delays built into the system.

Among other points, House lawmakers questioned a claim Hickey had made to Heller in her Senate hearing last week — that VA administrators are bound “by law” to observe a mandatory 60-day waiting period after filing a claim to receive an answer, and then another 30 days after a follow-up call.

“We deal with the same agencies ... and if we don’t get an answer in five days, we call them up and say ‘where’s our answer,’” Heller said. “But of course, by law we’re not limited to those delays.”

But in the House hearing, Hickey admitted — when pressed by lawmakers — that the law requires “reasonable” waiting periods, not necessarily as long as the 60-day and 30-day waiting periods she’d told Senate lawmakers she was bound by.

Hickey has been in her position for 16 months.

VA officials added Wednesday that Reno is part of the department’s next statistical review, planned for later this year.

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