YOUNGSTOWN - U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown announced a two-pronged approach to fixing the large backlog of claims filed by disabled veterans during a visit to the area Wednesday.
The Democrat put his support behind two key pieces of legislation that he says will expedite the process of addressing nearly 490,000 unchecked claims.
"The VA must make immediate and necessary changes in order to eliminate its disability claims backlog," Brown said at the Mahoning County Veterans Service Commission, located in the Oak Hill Renaissance Center. "It is unacceptable that Mahoning Valley veterans who selflessly serve their country have to wait far too long - even years-to receive the compensation they deserve."
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, total pending claims as of Aug. 10 were 774,816. Total backlogged claims were 489,387. The VA defines backlogged claims as those that have been pending for longer than 125 days.
Bob Brothers, a Niles resident and a U.S. Army veteran, said he appreciates the effort made by Congress to address the issue, but he doesn't believe the problem can be fixed through legislation.
"It's going to take a cultural change at the VA to fix the problem," Brothers said. "That would have to be the first step. The system was put in place in 1945 and they're still using it."
The disability claims backlog is one of the most significant challenges facing the VA, Brown said. This is due to a number of contributing factors, including the more than 1 million new claims filed each year, an increase in the complexity contained in each claim, the influx of veterans returning from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the VA granting of service-connection for conditions related to Agent Orange exposure.
During his appearance in Youngstown, Brown promoted the Veterans Services Outreach Act, which would require the VA to notify veterans filing claims electronically that they can receive help and important time-saving information that could significantly reduce their wait time.
In addition, Brown said he will also work to pass the Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2013, legislation that would hold the VA accountable by requiring it to publically report information on both its projected monthly goals and actual production so that Congress and the public knows if the VA is working toward eliminating its backlog.
The bill would also establish a task force to hire and train claims processors, and develop tactics to attack and eliminate the backlog, Brown said.
Joining the senator in Youngstown was Stuart Novotny, a local Vietnam veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart who said he has waited nearly two years to receive his disability benefits.
"It's a frustrating experience having to wait so long," Novotny said. "It's not just about me. It's about all of the veterans who have served their country."
Brothers worries that by creating an online submission process for veterans seeking disabilities, the problem of backlogs could become worse.
"It is going to jam up the system," Brothers said. "Case workers for veterans already have to go through a two-year training process to learn how to submit the claims. How are the veterans submitting them online going to know exactly what is needed?"
According to VA's records, in fiscal years 2010 through 2012, the department completed 1 million claims per year.