Veterans Affairs hopes for funds to fight backlog Mikulski seeks aid to speed claims

September 21, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Staff writer

Swamped by more than a half-million claims for benefits, the Department of Veterans Affairs is hoping to use an extra $5 million provided by Congress to dig its way out of the backlog.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, head of the subcommittee that controls the agency's budget, said in Baltimore yesterday that she had added the funds to the budget bill to pay overtime and provide training to benefits processors. The Democrat spoke at the Veterans Benefits Academy, which opened last year in the Fallon federal building to train veterans claims processors.

The Senate is expected to vote on the budget bill today, said a Mikulski aide.

Negotiators for the Senate and House then would have to resolve differences between their versions of the bill before final enactment.

Officials blamed the backlog on increasingly complex claims-handling requirements imposed by Congress and the courts.

They also said the agency often has long waits to obtain medical records to document claims, records that often go back to World War II and the Korean War.

There are now 545,000 pending claims nationally, said R. J. Vogel, deputy undersecretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In Baltimore, where 23 employees make decisions on claims, just over 5,000 applications are pending.

Milton Maeda, who supervises a staff of counselors at the Baltimore office, said the average processing time for claims is 7 1/2 months.

Ms. Mikulski said that it should be reduced to 110 days.

"We want to make the Veterans Administration as fit for duty as the veterans they serve," Ms. Mikulski told a class of trainees at the benefits academy. The senator, her spokesman said, pushed hard to get the academy located in Baltimore because the 2,500 people who spend up to three weeks training there each year spend a lot of money locally on meals, hotels and entertainment.

Two hours after Ms. Mikulski's appearance at the academy, Larry Williams was in another office upstairs hoping to get a decision on his 9-month-old application for benefits.

Instead of an answer, he was told to go to the V.A. hospital for a physical examination.

"They're jerking me around," complained the 45-year-old West Baltimore resident who said he was in the Navy in the late 1960s. "They want to see me homeless first."

Later, Newell E. Quinton, regional director of the Veterans Benefits Administration, said, "Unfortunately, that happens too often."

Earlier, Ms. Mikulski blamed Congress for passing laws that require employees to use 108 different forms and seven policy manuals in processing claims applications for pension and disability payments. Altogether, the agency has 20 manuals that claims processors have to use to handle all types of claims, officials said.

Agency officials and claims processors also warned that the shrinking defense establishment will mean an influx of new claims as thousands of military personnel are forced back to civilian life.

"The workload on claims has doubled in the last couple years and we expect it to triple in the next five years," said Carol Nerrill, a supervisor in the Waco, Texas office working temporarily as an instructor at the Veterans Benefits Academy.

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