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Wednesday, Jan 30 2013 11:00 PM

KEVIN McCARTHY: Time is now for VA to address huge backlog of benefit claims

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    Kevin McCarthy

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Throughout our nation's history, America has been a shining city on the hill to the rest of the world -- a representation of what freedom and a democratic system of government can produce. And we have the men and women of our armed forces to thank for it. Our military is the force protecting our nation and our way of life, and it is the American way to ensure that those who have risked the ultimate sacrifice come home to the care and services they deserve and need.

Right now, there are approximately 22.7 million veterans in America. Nearly 2 million of those are living in California, and my congressional district is home to one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the state -- nearly 55,000. However, when I met with many veterans all over my district over the past year, their message was always the same: the Department of Veterans Affairs is not meeting their needs by consistently failing to process disability claims and failing to schedule medical appointments in a timely manner.

I heard the message loud and clear and led my colleagues to ask the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to audit the VA in order to find out why there are such delays with veterans getting the benefits and care they deserve.

The GAO's audits confirm our veterans' worst complaints and indicate an overall lack of focus on the part of the VA, as well as a failure to implement internal goals already established. According to the GAO, the VA has more than 856,000 claims, of which 66 percent are backlogged. GAO determined the average wait time for claims is 318 days from start to finish, while the VA has an internal goal of 125 days by 2015. In the Los Angeles VA Regional Office that serves Kern County veterans, 80 percent of the 25,322 claims are backlogged and awaiting a decision, one of the worst backlogs in the country.

At present, many veterans literally wait years before they receive benefits or receive timely medical appointments when one factors in appeals. Sometimes it can be too late.

The current system is failing our veterans, the very men and women who have served our country. They deserve better than this.

As an immediate response to these audits, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller and I sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki urging that he take immediate action to implement the GAO recommendations to begin fixing the delays in VA services, provide us with a detailed plan to reduce the delays in services, and to personally brief us on the plan.

Additionally, Miller has scheduled hearings in February on the GAO's audits, where myself and other members of Congress will ask senior VA officials why they must address these most egregious results.

The men and women who have served our country in our armed forces deserve our recognition and gratitude for the sacrifices they and their families have made to ensure we can wake every morning to a nation full of endless possibility; a nation where we can pursue and achieve our dreams. One way we can demonstrate our gratitude is to ensure that those who have served receive the benefits they earned. As duly elected officials, we have the responsibility to oversee the VA to ensure our veterans receive the care that is owed to them. In the coming weeks and months, the Veterans Affairs Committee, with my support, will continue to look into these matters through hearings and develop legislative solutions. The VA must take immediate action to fix the issues identified in these audits, especially since America will potentially have a million new veterans over the next five years.

We must make sure that our veterans are shown heartfelt appreciation and quality care when they return home. If the VA does not take immediate and substantive steps to address these problems and honor our commitment to those who have answered the call of duty, the House will.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, represents California's 23rd Congressional District.

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