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The Department of Veterans Affairs has "a transcendent moral mission" to provide prompt service to the millions of former military members it serves, VA chief technology officer Peter Levin said Friday.
But more than 250,000 veterans have waited more than four months to get claims for benefits processed by the department. And Leven and other VA leaders said Friday that's simply unacceptable.
Announcing their intention to "break the back of the backlog," the leaders said they would wage a determined fight to change the culture and business practices of the VA and use technology to help deserving veterans get help faster.
"We recognize that there are frustrations and there are disappointments," said VA chief of staff John Gingrich. He noted that the VA has to process more than one million claims each year but said that's no excuse for making those who served in the nation's military wait long periods of time for compensation for their service-related conditions.
Jack Climer, vice commander of the Utah department of the American Legion, applauded the VA's intentions and commended the enormous bureaucracy for the tremendous strides it's already made in reducing the time that veterans wait for compensation. Veterans who take advantage of the help of free service officers from the American Legion, Climer said, have an average wait of about four to six weeks for compensation claims.
But Climer noted that compensation is just one of many services for which veterans must wait.
"I've been waiting five months to see my primary care doctor," he said.
He said that as the VA addresses the compensation backlog, it must also work to break the back of other backlogs.
Jill Atwood, a spokeswoman for the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System, said veterans who are enrolled in the system have the right, under VA policy, to see a doctor within 30 days of any request. "That's the standard," she said. "And our track record's pretty good."
The VA hits that 30-day target a little more than 80 percent of the time, Atwood said. She acknowledged that still left nearly one in five veterans who have to wait more than a month to be seen, but noted that anyone enrolled in the VA system can go to the acute walk-in clinic or the emergency room if necessary.
Help for veterans
Veterans who wish to file claims for service-connected disabilities or want free help applying for other benefit programs can contact the following veterans service organizations. Membership is not required to access free assistance.
American Legion • 801-326-2380
Veterans of Foreign Wars • 801-326-2385
Disabled American Veterans • 801-326-2375