MILWAUKEE -- Veterans Affairs officials are working to trim the backlog of compensation claims by switching from a paper-based system to a computerized one, and Milwaukee's VA office already has been digitized, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Wednesday in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee is among 36 of the 56 regional veterans offices already using the new computer system, which was installed in December. The rest are scheduled to come online by the end of this year.
Nationally, 882,000 compensation and pension claims are pending, with 610,000 that are older than 125 days. In Milwaukee's Veterans Affairs Regional Office, 5,903 claims are pending, with 2,291 over 125 days. Any claims pending for more than 125 days are considered backlogged.
"Today veterans, including those here in Wisconsin, wait too long to receive benefits they've earned. That has never been acceptable," said Shinseki, a Vietnam veteran and retired four-star Army general.
He set a deadline of 2015 to take care of the backlog of claims.
A number of factors are contributing to the backlog:
--A decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
--An antiquated claims processing system based on paper files.
--The expansion of benefits to veterans and their families for Agent Orange-related conditions.
--Relaxed requirements to qualify for post-traumatic stress for all conflicts dating back to World War II.
--The increased complexity of claims because advances in medical technology are saving more lives on battlefields.
"We have youngsters coming home with more injuries and more complex injuries than previous generations," Shinseki said. "The building of the backlog is really a decades old issue. We sit astride a river of paper we received incoming. If we're going to deal with the numbers, we have to automate and get out of paper."
The secretary visited Milwaukee's regional office to talk to employees on Wednesday, followed by a visit later in the day to the veterans office in Cleveland, Ohio.
Shinseki, who was appointed secretary in 2009, has come under fire in recent months for the backlog of claims, some of which stretch back years. He said Congress has increased funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs from almost $100 billion four years ago to $140 billion in the current budget. The 2014 proposed budget is $152 billion.
Robert Granstrom, director of the Milwaukee VA Regional Office, said his office is expected to handle the backlog of claims by local veterans in the next two years.
"We're working hard and on track to meet all of the goals by 2015. We're probably a little better than national" statistics, Granstrom said Wednesday.
VFW state commander De Witt Woodworth said there have been big improvements in claim processing in the past year.
"It's getting much better in the whole state as far as veterans' claims. It's not where it should be, but it's better than what it was," said Woodworth.
Wisconsin American Legion Adjutant David Kurtz said post 9-11 veterans often don't realize they're having psychological or physical issues until after they leave the military or they're focused on reintegrating back into civilian life. Then months or years later they realize there are problems and they file claims.
"Part of the issue is that when they're in the service, they're within a chain of command structure. They're far less likely to self-identify themselves as having issues, whether it's physical or mental," Kurtz said. "But as months pass (after leaving the military), they become more aware of things happening to them physically and mentally."
The American Legion service office in Milwaukee is currently handling roughly 15,000 claims files for veterans and their families, compared with 6,500 files in 2007. And the number of transactions, ranging from helping veterans apply for benefits to answering phone calls and mail with questions from veterans about their claims, has skyrocketed from 36,000 three years ago to 51,000.