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Veterans' benefit? VA, buried under claims, says it's finally digging out.

The VA, scorned for its infamous backlog of veterans benefits claims, is belatedly dispensing with paper and seeking other innovations to serve veterans more quickly and equitably.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / July 4, 2013

In this June file photo, the head of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, Secretary Eric Shinseki, talks to reporters in Manchester, N.H. The VA is attempting to better serve veterans by implementing innovations such as electronic records.

AP Photo/Jim Cole

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Washington

Stories of US veterans streaming back from America’s wars and endeavoring to gamely navigate the Veterans Administration claims process have created a grim legend of wounded warriors waiting four years before the VA, buried under a mountain of paperwork, can even begin the process of looking into their benefits claims.

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In fact, according to an August 2012 report from the VA’s Inspector General, the stacks of files grew so dense at the Winston-Salem, N.C., regional VA office that they “appeared to have the potential to compromise the [structural] integrity of the building.”

According to the report, some 37,000 claims were in chaotic stacks, leading to a predictable “increased risk of loss or misfiling” and also exceeding the load-bearing capacity of the building by 39 pounds per square foot.

In the wake of this and other reports over the years – and the ensuing outcry from lawmakers and veterans advocacy groups – the VA has been laboring to bring down its backlog of claims, which VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has promised to end by 2015.

And in recent months, the agency has reported some success.

Efforts to speed up care for vets have included bringing high technology to the VA, in the form of a much-heralded recent move to get rid of paper files and computerize the claims process.

Earlier this year, the VA also established its own Center for Innovation, which is exploring products like mobile apps for vets and has reached out to entrepreneurs such as Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, in an effort to, for example, improve customer service.

Still, making a dent in the backlog of claims at the VA is no easy task. The department currently reports more than 800,000 petitions for which veterans are awaiting an answer. 

More than half a million of them, roughly 525,000, are “backlogged,” meaning, by the definition Mr. Shinseki has put in place, that they have been pending for more than 125 days.

The hold-up in many cases has been complicated by the surge of veterans returning home with wounds from America’s decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past four years alone, nearly 1 million veterans were added to the VA’s compensation rolls. 

“Veterans submitting claims today claim many more medical conditions,” says VA spokesman Randy Noller. This is “largely because of multiple deployments and the fact they are 10 times as likely to survive today’s wars – but with multiple medical issues for a lifetime.”

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