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Vets' benefit claims still handled badly, report says

The Veterans Benefit Administration has failed in its efforts to improve its tarnished track record of processing veterans' disability claims, according to a report released Thursday.

"VBA's problems with large backlogs and long waits for decisions have not yet improved, despite years of studying these problems," said the report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Furthermore, the report said that of the decisions made, "nearly one-third are incorrect or have technical or procedural errors."

Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Longwood asked for the report. It found several reasons for the backlog, among them: Many experienced workers have retired; veterans are reporting more disabilities; and the process is complex.

At a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing Thursday, McCollum told lawmakers that he asked for the report after speaking with veterans in his area and visiting the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines in Pinellas County.

McCollum said Florida's disabled veterans face difficulties particular to the state. For instance, he said, Florida ranks second in disabled veterans but has only one regional processing center, Bay Pines.

California, the state with the most disabled veterans, has three. Texas, Pennsylvania and New York have two each.

Disability compensation is the largest program in the agency, providing benefits to more than 2.5-million veterans, dependents and survivors. In 1999, the program spent about $18-billion on disability claims.

The Veterans Administration says more veterans than ever are receiving disability compensation.

The report found that in 1999 processing a claim took, on average, 205 days; the goal is 74 days. At year's end, 69,000 claims, not including requests for reconsideration or appeals, were pending. More than a third had been waiting for more than six months.

Agency officials defended it against criticism from veterans organizations, lawmakers and retired veterans.

Joseph Thompson, undersecretary for benefits for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the agency has a long way to go but "has made considerable progress."

The agency has undertaken a number of reforms, Thompson said, but it is hampered by complex veterans benefits laws. He called on Congress to simplify them.

The reforms include updating technology, recruiting and training replacement workers, and educating veterans about their benefit rights.

One day, the agency plans to let veterans file for benefits online.