WASHINGTON – Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski said Monday she "put veterans ahead of the line" with the passage of a $158 billion spending bill for military construction and veterans issues.
The legislation, which must be approved by the full Senate, also includes a 10-point plan to address the claims backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Maryland Democrat said the bill had bipartisan support.
"Even in this tight budget time we wanted to make sure that promises made are promises kept," Mikulski said. She said she expects the plan will be supported by the House.
Included in the spending plan is $55 billion for veterans' medical care and $100 million for the modernization of VA hospitals for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, as well as money to better process veterans' disability claims.
"We think when you’ve been on the front line, serving your country, you should not have to wait in a long line in order to get your disability" benefits, Mikulski said. " ... I was deeply disturbed to find out that Maryland had one of the worst backlogs."
The VA faces pressure to speed the review of more than 550,000 long-outstanding claims for veterans benefits.
Baltimore's VA office is one of the worst-performing in the nation, according to agency data, with an-above average percentage of disability claims more than 125 days old and the highest error rate in the country.
The average wait time for a decision in Baltimore is 332 days, or nearly 11 months. More than 16,000 claims, or 84 percent, are more than 125 days old, the VA definition of backlogged. The national average is 66 percent.
The error rate in Baltimore, at 26.2 percent, is nearly twice the national rate of 13.7 percent.
In addition to fully funding President Barack Obama's budget request for claims processing, the bill would:
- Add $20 million to upgrade computer hardware in regional offices;
- Add $10 million for targeted overtime and training for claims processors;
- Direct the VA to increase training of claims processors;
- Direct the department to provide quality review teams and spot audits;
- Direct the department to create centers of excellence for certain types of complex claims;
- Direct the VA to have the data management capability to receive all Department of Defense health records in an electronic format by the end of calendar year 2013;
- Require the department to provide monthly reports to the House and Senate appropriations committees on performance measures for each regional office;
- Require the department to submit quarterly reports on the number of claims personnel in each regional office, corrective actions to remedy any problems at poorly performing offices, training programs and quality review team audits;
- Direct the VA inspector general with the Defense Department inspector general to examine the processes and procedures involved in the transmission of medical and personnel records; and
- Add $12.9 million for the Board of Veterans Appeals to hire additional personnel to expedite the processing of appeals.
This legislative plan follows talks that included Mikulski; Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, chairman of the subcommittee on military construction and VA appropriations; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki; Carolyn Colvin, acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration; and others.
The participants agreed that each agency would identify a single high-level person whose sole focus is fixing problems, and who reports directly to the Secretary or Administrator. Hagel and Shinseki agreed to meet on the backlog every 60 days.
Mikulski said she continues to investigate the claims backlog in Baltimore and nationally.