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Baltimore VA office gets help with backlog

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BALTIMORE — Teams of claims handlers and new technology are being deployed to help the troubled Baltimore Veterans Affairs office, where veterans face some of the longest waits in the country to have their cases handled, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said Tuesday.

“Many veterans, including those living in Maryland, have to wait too long for benefits, and that’s never acceptable,” Shinseki said during an appearance at the Baltimore office with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).

Two 17-member teams of employees from other regional offices — termed “SWAT teams” by Mikulski — will work in Baltimore in February and March to reduce the backlog, which stood at 19,935 on Feb. 9. A third team already sent to Baltimore doubled the monthly output of processed claims in January, officials said.

“We’re bringing in more people from other regional offices to dig in and clear out the backlog,” Mikulski said.

In addition, 35 employees at the Baltimore office who had been assigned to other duties are now working solely on the Maryland cases, 84 percent of which have been pending for more than 125 days.

Two supervisors from the VA’s office in St. Paul, Minn., one of the best-performing VA offices, arrived Tuesday in Baltimore and will spend 60 days assessing the office’s performance and training workers.

The VA also is speeding up the introduction of a paperless claim system to Baltimore, now scheduled to begin in May rather than November. The new Veterans Benefits Management System, which was introduced in the VA office in Hartford, Conn., in September, is now in place in 20 offices and is scheduled to be running nationwide by the end of the year.

“Technology is the key,” said Shinseki, who toured the office with Mikulski and met with workers.

The Washington Post reported this month that veterans in Maryland often wait more than a year for a decision, and then face a 25 percent chance that their claims will be mishandled, an error rate that is the worst in the nation.

Agency figures show the Baltimore regional office’s performance is among the nation’s worst, with claims filed by veterans seeking disability compensation pending 429 days on average — 162 days longer than the national average.

“We’ve all read the stories about the backlog — the unacceptably long wait times, lost paperwork and high rates of errors,” Mikulski said. “Nobody thinks this is acceptable. Our veterans have already fought on the front lines. They should not have to fight their own government for benefits they’ve earned and deserve when they return home.”

Nationwide, the VA’s 56 regional offices face a backlog of more than 900,000 claims, the result of a sharp increase in filings by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as by older generations, in particular Vietnam veterans who have been able to file many more claims related to the herbicide Agent Orange under liberalized rules.

Mikulski noted that much of the time it takes the VA to process claims is spent waiting for information about individual applicants from the Defense Department, Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration.

The senator said she would convene a roundtable with leaders from the agencies looking for ways to improve communication, coordination, record sharing and to speed up the claims process.

“I’m going to crack my budgetary whip,” said Mikulski, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Baltimore’s problems were exacerbated when it was selected to help pilot a joint VA-Defense Department integrated disability evaluation system, an effort aimed at eliminating red tape that frustrated service members at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and other military hospitals.

VA officials acknowledge that the Baltimore office was not given the resources needed for the task.

“We did not do it as well as we should have,” said Allison A. Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, who appeared with Shinseki and Mikulski. “The system could not handle the big surge. We’ve been trying to fight our way out ever since.”

Mikulski said Congress must ensure that the VA is given the resources needed to cut the backlog.

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