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Editorial: Help disabled vets deal with the claims backlog

Veterans delivered for us. Washington should deliver --

Veterans delivered for us. Washington should deliver -- promptly -- for them. Credit: Tribune Media Services / Mark Weber

Military veterans left impaired by their service to the nation have a hard enough time getting a handhold in civilian life without an interminable wait for disability benefits adding to their troubles.

But a logjam of claims has forced qualified veterans nationally to wait an average of 273 days after applying before they start receiving benefits. It's even worse for claims processed by the New York regional office, where the average wait is 313 days. Veterans affairs officials on Long Island said the processing delays vary widely based on the type of case, but the average wait in Nassau is 14 months, and about 12 months in Suffolk.

That's a deplorable situation that has to change.

Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, said the agency's goal is to eliminate the mountainous national backlog of 846,223 applications by 2015 and to process all claims within 125 days. Those are reasonable targets, but bureaucracies being what they are, it wouldn't be terribly surprising if the agency fell short. Actually, it would be surprising if it didn't.

That's why Congress should pass legislation sponsored by Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) to help veterans waiting and waiting and waiting for claims decisions. The Veterans Backlog Reduction Act would authorize provisional benefits for any veteran whose claim languishes for more than 125 days. That benefit would equal the award for 40 percent disability, or the average amount payable for the type of disability claimed.

A veteran with a spouse and one child and a 40 percent disability rating is eligible for up to $677 a month.

So, how did things get so backed up?

Officials blame 10 years of war, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with more complex injuries, increased demands from aging veterans, and recent decisions to recognize for the first time medical conditions related to Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder and Gulf War illness.

Another factor is that an astounding 97 percent of the claims are still filed on paper. That's ridiculous in this day and age. President Barack Obama proposed a 10 percent budget increase to $152.7 billion for the agency in 2014 that includes $155 million for a sorely needed electronic claims-processing system. The federal government has proved especially inept at computerization. That can't continue.

A balky bureaucracy isn't the biggest problem many of the nation's 22.3 million veterans face. But it shouldn't be added to the troubling problems of suicide, substance abuse, mental illness and homelessness. And now it appears veterans are targets for rapacious lenders.

Benjamin Lawsky, New York's superintendent of financial services, launched an investigation last week into "pension advances," financial products that require retirees to sign away a portion of their benefit payments to a company in exchange for a lump sum payment. The effective annual interest rates for the advances sometimes exceed 100 percent.

It can be an tough obstacle course out there for veterans.

They delivered for us. Washington should deliver -- promptly -- for them.