WASHINGTON - Although the number of pending veterans' disability claims keep soaring, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Sunday said he's committed to ending the backlog in 2015 by replacing paper with electronic records.
Veterans receive disability compensation for injuries or illness incurred during their active military service. About 600,000 claims, or 70 percent, are considered backlogged. The number of claims pending for more than 125 days has nearly quadrupled under Shinseki's watch.
Shinseki told CNN's "State of the Union" that a decade of war and efforts to make it easier for veterans to collect compensation for certain illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder have driven the backlog higher during his tenure. He said that doing away with paper records will be the key to a turnaround.
Shinseki said that the VA has puts its new computer system in place in 20 regional offices around the country and all regional offices will be on the system by the end of the year.
"This has been decades in the making, 10 years of war. We're in paper, we need to get out of paper," Shinseki said. The Defense Department and other agencies still file paper claims, he said, but "we have commitments that in 2014 we will be electronically processing our data and sharing it."
Congressional committees have held two hearings on the disability claims bottleneck in the past two weeks. Lawmakers voiced growing frustration with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"There are many people, including myself, who are losing patience as we continue to hear the same excuses from VA about increased workload and increased complexity of claims," Florida's Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said during a hearing on Wednesday.
"No veteran should have to wait for claims. If there's anybody impatient here, I am that individual and we're pushing hard," said Shinseki, the former four-star Army general who became VA secretary when President Barack Obama came into office.
About 4.3 million veterans and survivors receive disability benefits. Most veterans whose claims are backlogged, about 60 percent, are getting some disability compensation already and have filed for additional benefits for other injuries or illnesses.
Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said a presidential commission was needed to bring greater emphasis to solving the problem and to make sure all federal agencies were on the same page.
"We're tired of waiting for the VA to get their act together," Tarantino said.
Peter Gaytan, executive director of the American Legion, emphasized that resolving disability claims in a timely manner is an issue his organization has dealt with for decades.