An electronic filing system that will eventually replace cumbersome paperwork has started to take a chunk out of the glut of pension and disability compensation claims, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Wednesday.
That's despite hiccups with the Veterans Benefits Management System, including a problem this spring that left it dark for two days.
The number of files processed at 56 regional VA offices increased from 80,000 in February and March to 94,000 in April and 94,000 last month.
"Veterans, including veterans in Idaho, are waiting too long to get their benefits. We're working to change that," Shinseki said during a press conference at the VA's Boise regional office on West Fort Street.
Shinseki, a retired Army four-star general who has headed the VA since 2009, has made the backlog a top priority. His 2015 timeline "is aggressive, but I think it's workable," he said.
'SPEED AND ACCURACY'
On Monday, the VA reported that it had 833,130 claims, with two-thirds - 547,922 - pending for more than 125 days. The average paper claim takes 290 days to process, Shinseki said. He said he's confident the new system will cut that time by more than half.
"Our calculations are that this will get us down to 125 days," while avoiding mistakes that have been a problem with paper claims, he said. "Speed and accuracy are both important."
The Boise office, which employs 70 people, has a stellar record. Cases handled by its staff are typically processed in 143 days, better than the other 15 western offices. Salt Lake City averages 256 days, Portland 230, Seattle 250 and Reno 331, according to the latest report.
The new electronic system, unveiled in Boise on Nov. 12, was faulted by a VA inspector general for not being fully tested. The inspector general noted that an April upgrade crippled the system. Shinseki said that further improvements will be made and that he's confident it will prove its value.
"It will transform the way we process claims," he said.
David Brasuell, administrator for the Idaho Division of Veterans Services, said he is excited by the progress being made. "We know it's going to be a slow process, but good decisions are being made," Brasuell said.
The claims process has been so complicated that it was nearly impossible for a veteran to submit a successful claim, said Josh Callihan, spokesman for the Boise VA Medical Center.
Most veterans rely on state and county veterans service officers to assist with their claims. With the new system, veterans still may use the service officers or can submit their claims online themselves.
The program functions similar to online tax preparation software that asks questions and uses populated data fields and drop-down menus. Claimants can check back to see the status of their submission.
"Before the tax software came out, you almost needed an accountant to file a tax return. Now, anyone can do it. This will have a similar impact," Callihan said.
Representatives of two statewide veterans organizations applauded Shinseki's efforts but questioned whether the software will be as effective as advertised.
"It's good to try and get the backlog down. However, I'm not sure they'll be able to do that," said Arthur Gimpel, an Idaho Falls resident who serves as state commander of the American Legion.
In the past, the Boise regional office was so effective that the VA rerouted languishing claims from other regions to Idaho. That led to delays in processing newer claims from Idaho veterans, said Gimpel, who served for 20 years in the U.S. Air Force before retiring in 1987. He said he hopes that doesn't happen again.
Richard Cesler, a Boise resident who last year served as state commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he saw the delays in processing VA claims. He applied for benefits several years ago and waited nearly three years before his claim was approved. Though he's skeptical the backlog can be eliminated by the end of 2015, the move to electronic records is positive, he said.
Transporting paper records from one VA unit to another - such as shuttling them between a hospital and a claims office - has caused delays in the past, Cesler said. There was also a chance the records could be lost.
Cesler, who served in the Air Force in Vietnam, said Shinseki has veterans' best interests at heart.
"Secretary Shinseki is a great guy. He's one of us. He's a Vietnam vet," Cesler said.
John Sowell: 377-6423Twitter: IDS_Sowell