Power Players

Vets advocate: Obama must ‘step up’ to shrink disability benefits backlog

Top Line

With nearly 900,000 veterans waiting to hear from the Veterans Administration about disability benefits claims—and the average wait time stretching to almost 300 days—the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) is calling on the president to make policy changes that will help diminish the backlog.

IAVA’s Chief Policy Officer Tom Tarantino tells Top Line that, while the White House says President Obama is keeping a close eye on the situation, veterans needs proof that real change is on the horizon.

“What we need is the commander-in-chief to step up and say ‘Look, there is a plan,’” Tarantino tells Top Line, “and we have to articulate a plan that's actually measurable so that those of us in the veteran’s service community, as well as every vet out there, can actually see how we're going to go from point A to point B to point C and get rid of the backlog.”

Tarantino explains that the backlog of veterans waiting for the VA to respond to their disability claims is due in large part to an outdated processing system.

“Right now you have 97% of the claims at the VA still on paper,” he explains, “they are transitioning to an electronic record system by the end of the year. But the problem is we still have nearly 600,000 claims that are sitting right now.”

The struggle to attain disability benefits isn’t new to the veterans’ community, but Tarantino says the “decades-old” problem has gotten much worse in recent years. Veterans currently on the backlog wait an average of 273 days for the VA to process their claims, and Tarantino says some wait as many as 600 days for a response.

The wait for benefits, Tarantino explains, forces vets to essentially put their life on hold. “What that means is that we are not keeping the promise to the servicemen who went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and also the servicemen who went to Vietnam and Korea and World War II, who are also stuck in the backlog,” he tells Top Line.

Another part of the problem, Tarantino says, is a lack of integrated health records between departments.

“It's absolutely insane that health records can't talk between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he says, suggesting that President Obama mandate the integration of the both departments’ electronic health record once the VA’s transition is complete.

For more of the interview with Tarantino, including how doctors categorize veterans’ disabilities when evaluating their benefits claims, check out this episode of Top Line.

ABC’s Alexandra Dukakis, Eric Wray, Ginny Vicario and Mary Quinn contributed to this episode.

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