MANCHESTER — The day is coming when injured veterans won’t have to wait longer than 125 days to find out whether they will receive veteran disability benefits, the Secretary for Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki told reporters Wednesday.
That will be two years from now, when a new electronic processing system eliminates the current backlog of claims, Shinseki said.
This spring, the VA announced efforts to reduce backlogs, now that the paperless, $428 million Veterans Benefits Management System is in place at all 56 regional offices, including Manchester.
“This is a big cross-over year for us,” Shinseki said after speaking to VA workers who process benefits in the Norris Cotton federal building in Manchester. “We have for decades sat astride rivers of paper. Now we are in the process of turning off paper spigots and turning on electronic ones.”
Nationally, the average time it takes to process a claim is 292 days.
That involves entering a claim into the system, determining what records — such as medical examinations and Defense Department service records — are needed for verification, obtaining those records, making a decision and notifying the veteran.
Payments are based on the percentage of a veteran’s disability and the number of people who depend on him or her. A married veteran with a 50 percent disability would receive $888 a month, tax-free, according to the VA website.
Some veterans complain about the long wait, while others think their claims are quickly denied because the bureaucracy is playing catch-up, said Keith Howard, executive director of Liberty House, a shelter for homeless veterans in Manchester.
He said homeless veterans do get fast-tracked, as well as those injured in recent wars, POWs, Medal of Honor recipients and the terminally ill. Others suffer through the slow pace, he said.
“That’s one of the things bureaucracies can do. They put so many road bumps in your way that eventually you give up,” he said.
For example, part of benefit claims involve documenting injuries. Soldiers often self-triage, Howard said, putting themselves at the back of the line for more seriously injured people. Then years later, it’s difficult to prove your injury, he said.
“You’re not thinking at that point, ‘I better document this for future benefits,’” Howard said.
Shinseki said veteran service organizations such as the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans provide key assistance to veterans when it comes to researching their claims.
He said veterans wait too long to receive their benefits, and neither he nor President Obama find that acceptable.
Shinseki attributed the lengthy wait to key decisions three years ago.
Three Vietnam War-related illnesses, including Agent Orange poisoning, were recognized. Nine first Gulf War illnesses were recognized. And benefits were allowed for veterans with verified post-traumatic stress disorder.
“PTSD is as old as combat itself,” he said. PTSD is also recognized for victims of sexual assault, he said.
Overall, the Manchester office has a good track record of processing a claim. The average wait time for a fully developed New Hampshire claim is 36 days, compared to 82 nationally.
In fact, the Manchester office is helping other VA Benefit offices process claims, Shinseki said.
“It’s a great indication Manchester is doing well,” Shinseki said, “they’re carrying an additional load.”