House looks to create task force on veterans' claims backlog

The House will vote as early as Monday on legislation creating a commission or a task force to examine the hundreds of thousands of unprocessed veterans claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The claims backlog at VA has drawn anger from both parties, particularly as hundreds of thousands of service members are returning home and filing new disability benefit claims.

As of this week, the VA said there were more than 411,000 claims for pensions and disability compensation that have been pending for more than 125 days, which gives them "backlog" status. According to the House Veterans Affairs committee, the backlog has more than tripled since 2009.

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The legislation up next week from Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), H.R. 2189, would establish a group that would have to analyze the backlog and report to Congress within 180 days on the best ways to reduce it. A report from Miller's committee says that while the VA is hoping to eliminate the backlog entirely by 2015, the department does not appear to have a strategy for doing so.

"While VA has targeted backlog elimination by 2015, VA lacks a comprehensive process and workload strategy for the future that takes into account the changing nature of disabilities in our nation," the report said.

Under the bill, the group would be made up of 15 people — eight would be picked by House and Senate majority and minority leaders (two each), and three would be chosen by President Obama. Other picked would be made by the secretary of Defense, the VA secretary, and the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals for Veterans.

Aside from setting up a commission, the bill requires the VA to report regularly on a plan for reducing the disability claim backlog, sets up training for VA claims processors, and demands that the VA prioritize certain longstanding claims.

The bill appears likely to sail through the House next week. It has bipartisan cosponsorship, and Miller's committee approved it in August by voice vote.

House Republican leaders are calling it up under a suspension of the rules, which means it will get a shorter debate and must pass by a two-thirds majority vote.

Miller's bill is one of several veterans-related bills up next week, just days before Veterans Day. Others are meant to give veterans more education options, make it easier for veterans to appeal benefit claims decisions, and ensuring adequate housing aid for veterans.

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