Senator Threatens to 'Fence Off' VA Funding

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The ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday threatened to block funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters unless the agency begins providing the committee with data he said will show if the VA is effectively dealing with its claims backlog.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told Allison A. Hickey, VA Under Secretary for Benefits, that it is not clear to him that the VA is making the progress in bringing down the backlog as officials have claimed. The monthly reports the VA provides to the committee are not sufficient to determine what is happening, he said.

Burr said he wanted Hickey to send the committee the raw metrics the VA uses to create the monthly reports the lawmakers currently are getting. Burr repeatedly pressed Hickey for a commitment for the data, but she said only that the VA would "continue to provide information" to the committee.

"I'll take that as a 'no,'" Burr responded. He went back to the issue later on, saying "the committee needs the performance metrics that you don't get on a monthly report in order to do oversight correctly."

If Congress does not receive those metrics, Burr said he would limit future funding.

"If we don't get it I will do all I can to fence off VA headquarters' [appropriations]," he said.

Hickey told lawmakers in testimony that the VA was still on target to eliminate the claims backlog in 2015. That backlog is now about 600,000 claims, she said, up from 180,000 since 2010, the year VA Secretary Erik Shinseki added three diseases to those presumed to be linked to Agent Orange exposure.

That decision resulted in nearly 300,000 additional claims from Vietnam veterans, roughly half of them vets whose bid for compensation was rejected previously. Since 2010, Hickey said the VA has awarded more than $4 billion in retroactive benefits to more than 164,000 Vietnam veterans who qualified since Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease and B-cell leukemias were added to the of Agent Orange-related illnesses.

Hickey said the VA last year processed nearly 1 million claims. She also said that as the agency improves its system, including converting more paper documents to electronic, the backlog should continue to shrink until the agency reaches its goal of being able to handle all claims within 125 days of submission in 2015.

Hickey was unable to offer a fall back plan in the event the new technology the VA is adopting, and the improved handling by employees, fails to achieve the goal.

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