VA 'turning around' massive veterans claims backlog

By Lara Yamada
Published On: Dec 24 2013 03:02:41 AM HST
Updated On: Sep 20 2013 07:45:14 PM HST

It's been a huge undertaking playing catch up on that massive backlog of claims for veterans. Four months ago, the feds started mandating overtime at regional offices to reduce the numbers. As KITV4's Lara Yamada show us those efforts are returning mixed results.

Honolulu -

At Punchbowl Cemetery on Friday, hundreds of people came out to remember missing service members on the annual National POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony.

“As we think about the heroes who have sacrificed so much, we must not forget the thousands of military families who cannot find peace,” said one of several speakers.

But most in the crowd were service members who returned home, only to deal with the reality of life after war.

“It's been challenge for many veterans,” said Donovan Lazarus, AMVETS Hawaii Commander.

“I'm a 100 percent disabled veteran,” said Veteran of Foreign Wars Commander Frank Bragg.

He said filing his claim was a long and frustrating process.

“You have to keep appealing it, but it pays off in the long run,” said Bragg.

“We've been very busy,” said Honolulu Regional Office Director Tracey Betts.

In recent years, the Veterans Affairs Department had been slammed with criticism about a backlog of claims, that at one point, surpassed a million cases.

Betts said, that backlog occured, in part, because the VA had added new medical conditions and categories, forcing the department to re-do tens of thousands of claims.

PHOTOS: POW, MIA Recognition Ceremony

“Anybody who was previously denied, we went back to see if they were treated for these conditions,” said Betts.

In early 2013, the VA launched its plan to cut the backlog by refocusing on older claims, shifting to electronic filing, and in May, mandating overtime at all regional offices until the numbers improved.

“Claims are always coming in everyday,” said Betts.

Nationally, the VA said it’s down to 446,171 backlogged claims and 744,340 pending claims as of September, 2013.

The Honolulu Regional Office, which handles claims in Hawaii, Samoa, the Northern Marianas and Guam, has processed all claims more than two years old, most over one year.

Betts said, as of September 20, 2013 the office had a total of 4,507 claims to process.

“I think we're doing much better than we were doing a couple of years ago. I see progress, but we still have a long way to go, without a doubt,” said Lazarus.

Despite that progress, President Obama has made it clear he does not believe the VA is moving fast enough.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, born and raised on Kauai, has been tasked with reversing the problem.

His goal is to end the backlog in two years.

Shinseki will talk about the issue in Hawaii on Saturday.

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