Veterans in New York and other states along the East Coast are waiting much longer than veterans in other parts of the country for their applications for education benefits to be processed this year, Sen. Charles Schumer said Monday.
The regional Veterans Affairs office in Buffalo, serving the East Coast from Maryland to Maine, took 46 days on average to process those claims under the GI Bill. The other three regional offices -- in St. Louis, Muskogee, Okla., and Atlanta -- took 20 to 28 days, Schumer said at a news conference at Farmingdale State College.
"The VA needs to get to the bottom of the problem in New York and overhaul the way these benefits, earned with the blood and sweat of our soldiers, are processed and paid out," Schumer said at the news conference with six veterans who are now students.
The New York Democrat said the Buffalo office, although not the nation's busiest, has consistently been the slowest to process benefits. Last year, that office took 40 days, while the nationwide average was 24 days. In 2010, the average was 52 days for Buffalo and 39 nationwide, he said.
A spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Office acknowledged that there had been a backlog of applications for benefits, particularly in the Buffalo office, earlier this year.
The spokesman, Randal Noller, said in an email that he had been told that as of March 26, "the backlog in the Buffalo regional office was completely cleared and that the claims are now current."
However, Schumer's staff later released statistics showing the Buffalo office still had a waiting time of 46.7 days for the month of February and 45.9 days for March. The Veterans Affairs Office did not respond to requests for comment on those statistics.
Michael Baltrusitis, 22, of Bethpage, who served in the Marine Corps in Japan and Iraq, said it took six months for the VA to process his request for benefits that should have begun when he started school in January.
"I first put in the paperwork in November. I just got reimbursed $5,000," Baltrusitis said.Schumer said his office had gotten complaints from veterans, but he also credited Eric Farina, head of the Office of Veterans Affairs at the college, for "helping alert us to this problem."