By Jeremy Herb
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) joined a group of House Democrats on the Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday to unveil a package of legislation to help fix the disability claims backlog.
The committee Democrats released a package of 10 bills designed to help the Department of Veterans Affairs meet its goal of erasing the nearly 600,000 backlogged claims by 2015.
“This backlog is a challenge to the conscience of our country,” Pelosi said.
The bills include measures that would require the Pentagon to provide electronic records within 21 days that a service member is discharged and would pay veterans as each benefit within a claim is decided, rather than waiting until the full claim is completed.
The claims backlog and the problems with moving to electronic records and merging the Pentagon and VA’s systems have sparked criticism in Congress and among veterans’ organizations over the Obama administration’s approach to the backlog.
The issue has also received renewed public scrutiny as the number of claims has grown, including from comedian Jon Stewart, as “The Daily Show” has done several serious segments on the problem.
Twenty members of the House VA Committee, including Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and ranking member Michael Michaud (D-Maine), wrote to President Obama on Wednesday asking him to step in to solve the DOD-VA interagency problems.
“The time has come for a decision to be made and for the permanent merging of electronic health-care records of the DOD and the VA,” the lawmakers wrote. “Select a system, pick a path and move forward. We can no longer waste the time or money that will result from endless bureaucratic inaction.”
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has vowed to eliminate the backlog by 2015 and meet the department’s goal of processing claims within 125 days.
Shinseki and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are attending a roundtable discussion with the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
Michaud said on Wednesday that the legislation offered by the committee’s Democrats would help the VA reach its goal, while also providing veterans some relief as the backlog is addressed.
Michaud said after Wednesday's press conference that he had not yet spoken to Miller, the committee chairman, to discuss marking up the bills. But he said he was optimistic they could reach an agreement because they're on the same page to address the problems with the claims backlog.