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After Hagan Draws Attention to Veterans Appeals Backlog, VA Secretary Responds to Her Request to Address Delays

Shinseki says “appeals workload remains a complex challenge at the Winston-Salem” office

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

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Washington, D.C. - U.S. Senator Kay Hagan today announced that Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki has responded to her request to address the growing backlog of appeals at the Winston-Salem Regional Office (RO) that numbered more than 11,000 in September. In some cases, veterans are waiting up to four years or longer to receive a decision.

"While I understand that the VA has made progress in processing new disability claims in a timely manner, I am concerned that there may not be similar initiatives in place to address the backlog of appeals that seems to be growing larger by the day," Hagan wrote in a September letter to Secretary Shinseki.

Secretary Shinseki responded with a letter of his own, which can be read in its entirety here.

"I fully share your view that we must improve not only the claims process, but the appeals system as well," Secretary Shinseki wrote to Hagan. "The appeals workload remains a complex challenge at the Winston-Salem RO and nationwide. Over the last year, the Winston-Salem RO has maintained its appeals inventory at a steady state, even as production of claims decisions increased overall."

Secretary Shinseki outlined the following improvements the VA is making to speed up the appeals process:

· More streamlined/focused decision writing;
· Triaging incoming appeals to maximize efficiency;
· Increased use of video conferencing technology for hearings;
· Focused training of newly hired attorney staff; and
· Targeted use of overtime to increase productivity.

The VA is also implementing its paperless claims processing system and developing a standardized electronic form to make filing appeals easier for veterans.

"I'm pleased the VA is taking steps to expedite the appeals process, but there's still more room for improvement to ensure our veterans receive a timely decision," Hagan said. "The VA must do more than provide decisions at a ‘steady state'-it needs to make a serious dent into the cases that have piled up. These delayed cases represent brave men and women who have served our country but continue to wait for their hard-earned benefits.

"I urge Secretary Shinseki to implement improvements as quickly and effectively as possible to help veterans stuck in the appeals process and to address the forthcoming influx of new appeals as we wind down a decade of war. I will continue to closely monitor both the initial claims and appeals backlogs at the Winston-Salem RO."

Earlier this year, VA Undersecretary of Benefits Allison Hickey visited the Winston-Salem VA RO after Hagan requested that Secretary Shinseki send senior personnel to the office to address the backlog of initial claims. After Hagan met with Undersecretary Hickey during her visit, she requested a detailed plan from the VA to address the growing appeals backlog.

Last month, Hagan announced that the VA is receiving an increase of $294 million from last year's funding that will be used to help veterans transition to civilian life and clear the backlog of veterans' claims. Of that increased funding, the VA will use $55 million to pay for mandatory overtime for VA employees processing disability claims and $135 million to accelerate efforts to convert paper records to electronic records.

Hagan comes from a strong military family. Her father-in-law was a two-star Marine General; her brother and father served in the Navy; her husband, Chip, is a Vietnam veteran who used the GI Bill to help pay for law school; and she has two nephews who are on active duty.

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