Though Department of Veterans Affairs Undersecretary Allison Hickey delivered some good news at a meeting with Florida's U.S. representatives Tuesday morning, members of the local delegation are still dissatisfied that the St. Petersburg regional VA office leads the nation in claims pending for 125 days or more.
"It is unacceptable," said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, vice chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "These are our heroes, and a lot of them are badly injured. They should not have to wait that long."
At the bipartisan meeting, called by Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the committee, Hickey announced that the backlog of cases older than 2 years at the St. Petersburg regional office has dropped from about 1,800 in March to 28 cases, Bilirakis said.
"It looks like we are making progress, but I am always concerned," Bilirakis said.
Bilirakis said it is "unacceptable" that it takes on average nearly a year to complete a claim.
Like Bilirakis, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said she is glad that progress has been made on the veterans waiting two or more years for approval of a benefits claim, a formula that determines how much compensation a veteran receives.
However, she is displeased that both the overall number of cases and those waiting 125 days or more actually increased at the regional office.
"Those numbers have actually gone up in the past six months," Castor said.
Citing the VA's website, Castor said that on Feb 2 the St. Petersburg regional office had 46,616 claims pending, As of July 6, that figure had jumped to 50,347 claims pending, she said.
The number of veterans waiting 125 days increased from 32,664 to 35,658 during the same period, Castor said.
Castor explained that Hickey said part of the reason for the increases is that Florida has so many veterans.
Hickey told the representatives that Vietnam veterans account for 37 percent of the backlog, Castor said. In the past few years, the VA has added health problems resulting from exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange as well as combat-induced post traumatic stress disorder to the list of problems presumed to be service-related.
"We recognize that, but they didn't plan very well for it," Castor said.
"We have an aging population skewed more to the military retiree, and part of the backlog is attributable to aging and veterans feeling the ill effects of military service, but that is no excuse," Castor said.
St. Petersburg regional office spokeswoman Collette Burgess said claims pending 125 days "will be delayed for a time as VA works the oldest claims first."
"However, veterans who file Fully Developed Claims will continue to receive expedited processing, as will those who are Medal of Honor recipients, former prisoners of war, homeless, experiencing financial hardship and those who are terminally ill," she wrote in an email to the Tribune.
VA claims processors also are working mandatory overtime through September to eliminate the oldest claims in the backlog, Burgess said.
Castor said that Hickey also told the panel that the VA's new internal veterans benefits management system that allows electronic claims processing has been a success.
"That appears to be the case," Castor said.