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Vets' health claim delays unacceptable

Published May 09. 2013 4:00AM

It takes an average of 213 days for a veteran living in Connecticut to get a medical claim processed by the Veterans Administration and Connecticut veterans are among the fortunate. It takes 642 days on average for a veteran living in New York City.

That's a seven-month wait at best to a nearly two-year wait in New York before a supposedly grateful nation begins paying disability compensation to a wounded veteran. Those making the first claims, usually for wounds - mental or physical - sustained more recently in Iraq or Afghanistan, have to wait longer.

But better days are ahead if we are to believe the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Gen. Eric Shinseki, who told Connecticut veterans last week that by "sometime in 2015," no veteran - in Connecticut or anywhere else - will have to wait more than 125 days for a claim to be processed.

That's still over four months and it isn't about to happen until a scandalously overdue conversion of VA paper records to an electronic system is completed by that vague "sometime" two years or more from now.

The problem is paper.

The Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent news organization, used the Freedom of Information Act to determine that despite a four-year conversion effort by the Obama administration, 97 percent of veterans' claims are still on paper. Or if you're counting another way, the VA processes a pitiful 3 percent of claims electronically.

You may have seen a photo that accompanied the report showing a VA office in North Carolina so deluged with claims folders that the building was said to be in danger of collapsing. Or, as John Stewart put it on his Daily Show last week, the VA office was overflowing with what "looked like the junk stored in your grandfather's garage."

A few days before the secretary's Connecticut visit, 67 senators, including Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, asked for a bit more presidential leadership in dealing with the disgrace that is flourishing on President Obama's watch.

Calling on the president to "take direct action and involvement in ending the backlog," the senators said the number of pending claims has grown by more than 2000 percent over the past four years. The letter was signed by members representing every ideological view from that of Ted Cruz of Texas to Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and indicates that after two recent congressional hearings highlighted by the vague promises of Secretary Shinseki, the senators don't see much hope for a satisfactory solution even by "sometime in 2015."

This situation cries out for more than rhetoric from the president, House and Senate. Here is a rare opportunity to act upon a serious issue in which there's apparent unity. Even Obama's harshest critics in the House, so dedicated to being against everything the president proposes, can't turn on our wounded veterans.

But so far we haven't seen much evidence that action will be forthcoming. The senators have written an impassioned letter signed by two-thirds of them; the president's chief of staff - not the president - has said the president believes reducing the backlog is "a national priority." But so is immigration reform and so was gun legislation. Closing Guantanamo may be the oldest unfulfilled presidential priority in national history.

Meanwhile, veterans wait for promised medical care while their unread files pile up in warehouses. There should be no higher national priority than seeing to their needs.

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