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VA Still Under Pressure To Reduce Disability Claim Backlog


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

For years, the backlog of disability claims for veterans has been fodder for politicians, pundits and even comedians, like Jon Stewart.


JON STEWART: And paper disability records still undigitized and piled up so high that the floor of one VA field office is going to collapse.

CORNISH: That load has gotten a little lighter recently. The Department of Veterans Affairs says its backlog is at the lowest point in two years. But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, there's still pressure to do better.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The argument is about statistics, but each number represents a veteran, like Jason Ayala.

JASON AYALA: I was in the United States Army, two tours to Iraq, been out the military now going on four years, and, you know, I'm just stuck in this backlog with the VA right now.

LAWRENCE: Ayala came home different. He had a bad back and a bad temper. After a couple of years, his wife convinced him to get treatment for PTSD. He filed a disability claim with the VA back in December of 2011.

AYALA: Nineteen months is pretty horrific. I'm not claiming anything crazy. I have the proof I've been receiving PTSD treatment. I have an MRI stating I have a back injury. Can we proceed forward with this? And still, nothing.

LAWRENCE: The VA defines backlog as any claim that takes more than four months to get processed. The number peaked in March at about 600,000 vets in the line. Veterans organizations have put the backlog front and center. One conservative group delivered a petition yesterday calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. Pete Hegseth leads the million vet backlog campaign. He spoke outside the White House.

PETE HEGSETH: Because ultimately these men and women and their families have put their lives, their time, their sacred honor on the line for this country, and what they should be greeted with here at home is a department ready to serve them, and instead they are greeted by a massive bureaucracy incapable of delivering services until they wait and wait and wait some more.

BRANDON FRIEDMAN: The backlog has actually shrunk by over 21 percent since March. It's very clearly a downward trend.

LAWRENCE: Brandon Friedman is a combat vet and former VA employee.

FRIEDMAN: Now, the problem is not fixed yet, but, you know, there's no doubt that it's on the right path. I think the aircraft carrier has really begun to turn itself around.

LAWRENCE: Friedman says some of the criticism is politically motivated. He points out the million vet backlog campaign name is out of step with the facts. The backlog is now less than half that size, and none of the largest veterans' service organizations have joined the campaign. They're teaming up with the VA to help veterans file claims. Peter Gaytan heads The American Legion.

PETER GAYTAN: We're seeing the numbers go down, and I can tell you we know how hard we've been working to get those numbers down, so we're going to continue to do that.

LAWRENCE: But Gaytan isn't saying other vets groups should back off complaining about the backlog. He says anyone who keeps public attention on veterans is helping. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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