WASHINGTON — — A bipartisan group of lawmakers pressed the Obama administration Wednesday to reduce the backlog of disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs by improving cooperation between the several agencies that have a role in the process.
Senators emerged from a closed-door meeting with VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and said the agencies would work to improve communication, provide more regular updates to Congress and identify high-level staff who will ultimately be responsible for addressing the delays.
The VA has been under pressure for years to deal with a backlog in the processing of disability claims for wounded or sick veterans — a logjam that has left nearly 600,000 waiting months for a decision on whether they will receive benefits.
The agency's Baltimore office remains one of the worst-performing in the nation.
"We all agree that veterans wait too long to receive the benefits they've earned," Shinseki, who has proposed eliminating the backlog by 2015, said after the meeting on Capitol Hill. "This is not and has never been acceptable to VA."
In the days leading up to Memorial Day, lawmakers focused their attention on the nitty-gritty bureaucratic issues they say are partly to blame for the delays — including the time it takes for the Pentagon to transfer medical records and other paperwork to the VA.
The two agencies are developing electronic records systems that officials hope will be in place by the end of the year, but they have struggled to agree on a system. Hagel said this week that the Pentagon would purchase commercial software rather than relying on the VA's system.
"We've got a ways to go — we get that," Hagel said. "But we're moving in the right direction."
The meeting Wednesday was organized by Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who has been outspoken on the backlog.
Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the first of 12 regular spending measures the committee takes up next month will deal with veterans affairs and military construction.
She did not, however, provide details about whether she believes more money should be spent to address the issue.
"We want fire in the belly from the agencies," Mikulski said. "We have the fierce urgency of now to support our veterans."
More than 81 percent of the 16,600 disability claims at the VA's Baltimore office are more than 125 days old. The national average is nearly 67 percent.
The error rate in Baltimore, which serves all of Maryland, is the highest in the country at 25.8 percent. The error rate in Wilmington, Del., is only slightly lower than Baltimore's at 25.6 percent.
Proposals to deal with the issue have captured bipartisan support. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, the ranking GOP lawmaker on the Senate's veterans affairs subcommittee, also attended the meeting. He repeated calls for better cooperation between the agencies, citing the need for a "seamless transition" from active duty for veterans.
Also Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and several fellow Democrats unveiled a package of legislation they said would also help address the backlog.
One measure would require the Pentagon to provide certified, electronic medical records to the VA within three weeks.
Another proposal would allow the agency to pay veterans when individual components of a claim are decided, rather than waiting for judgment on all of the illnesses for which they are requesting assistance.
Pelosi called the backlog "a challenge to the conscience of our country."
Many of the provisions unveiled by Democrats also have GOP support.
"We welcome debate on any and all ideas to fix this growing problem," Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said in a statement. "Congress is committed to doing everything it can to help VA meet its goal of ending the backlog by 2015."
Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this story.