Monday, May 27, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The Veterans Administration’s new effort to expedite the claims backlogged for a year or more is likely to help many veterans in Nevada, where it takes veterans an average of 17 months to get their benefits.
But that isn’t a complete enough solution for Nevada’s delegation, which has long been pressing the VA to do more to mitigate the wait times in the Reno office that processes the state’s claims.
“That’ll take some off the top,” Nevada Rep. Dina Titus said in a recent interview with the Sun. “In the meantime, we’ve got to get that Reno office operating efficiently.”
Titus is the ranking member of the House’s chief subcommittee overseeing veterans benefits and disability compensation, and as of last week, she is heading up the first comprehensive effort to tackle the backlog of VA benefits not just through oversight but with the force of law.
“The problem is so complex that you’ve got to come at it from a number of different angles,” said Titus, who introduced the legislative package with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and full VA committee ranking member Michael Michaud last week. “But these are just common-sense things.”
In the past several weeks, members of the Nevada delegation have banded together to press just that point home with the Veterans Administration and others: Titus and Sen. Dean Heller have grilled Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, over the backlog in committee hearings. They, along with Sen. Harry Reid and Reps. Joe Heck and Steven Horsford, have filed an official letters of complaint with the Department. Titus and Rep. Mark Amodei have had meetings with VA officials to try to start the process of undoing the backlog.
Heller, who sits on the Senate’s veterans affairs committee, has also taken a legislative stab at the problem, filing a bill last month instructing the Defense Department and other departments of the administration to comply with VA requests for information pertaining to benefits speedily.
But Titus’ contributions to the delegation are aimed at the VA itself, in an attempt to get the department to change the policies that allowed such a backlog to build in the first place.
Titus’ chief contribution to the package House Democrats are putting up for offer is a bill requiring the VA to approve benefits progressively.
“Your case isn’t adjudicated until every claim has been processed. But if you have a serious injury – which is the case with a lot of the veterans coming back now – there may be five or 10 components to your claim, and you get no benefits while you’re waiting for every single one to be decided,” Titus said. “This way you get some money upfront ... and you don’t force everyone behind you to wait.”
The profile of a Southern Nevada veteran makes the waiting game especially problematic: Most local veterans trend toward the younger or older ends of the age spectrum, where people are more likely to live from paycheck to paycheck – and be more dependent on benefits than their middle-age counterparts.
“These young ones that come into that environment, it’s already hard to find a job ... and if you make them wait two years to get any benefits and they’re unemployed and don’t have a place to live?” Titus said. “Now you’re talking about increasing the problem of homelessness and suicide.”
The comprehensive slate of 10 veterans bills also includes a Titus proposal to speed up the appeals process by sending veterans the proper forms with their benefits instead of asking them to file a special request; a proposal from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., allowing the VA to outsource medical exams; and an effort from Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., requiring the Department of Defense and other agencies to respond to VA requests in 21 days (Heller’s similar legislation in the Senate sets the clock at 30 days).
But it’s not clear whether the package will gain political momentum. Although some of the proposals have Republican support, the grouping effort is thus far, all Democratic – and Democrats are in the House’s minority.
“I think you’ll see these bills get bipartisan support because they’re common sense,” Titus said in an interview, citing work she’s done with Republican members of the Nevada delegation as evidence that the two parties are of one mind when it comes to the importance of mitigating this backlog. “There’s nothing really ideological about them you’re fixing a system that is broken.”
Yet in Congress, anything is possible. Last week, House Democrats announced an attempted to “force a vote” on one of their veterans bills, to cap VA benefit processing reviews at 125 days. It didn’t happen.
But for now, Titus isn’t worried about all that – she’s certain that the bills will come up soon in her committee, and in the meantime, she’s focused on the Reno office that handles all of Nevada’s VA claims. Hickey is scheduled to make a site visit there in June, and talking about moving the VA off of a regional system to a computerized, topically based system.
Titus is open to the idea of grouping claims by type of injury instead of geographic location, but is reserving judgment about whether that will actually solve Nevada’s problem.
“Long term getting everything computerized is just that, long term,” Titus said. “For now, that Reno office is serving Nevada veterans.”
But Titus says she is warming to the idea that the VA may be able to handle this backlog crisis on the seemingly ambitious timetable the department has set out for itself of erasing its benefits backlog by 2015.
“I feel better, but not so confident that I haven’t been asking at every hearing, 'Give me some milestones,'” Titus said. “If you could get rid of the two-year backlog of claims in such a short time, why haven’t you done it up until now?”
“But, you know, technology changes, personalities change, priorities change,” answering her own question. “So I’m going to be optimistic.”