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VA chief Shinseki vows backlog in veterans claims will end by 2015

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Sunday defended the administration’s efforts to aid former servicemembers, even as he was forced to acknowledge his agency would not clear a backlog of pending disability claims until the end of 2015.

Shinseki — who has known of the ballooning problem since his confirmation in 2009 — said it will take nearly three more years to process the hundreds of thousands of claims, in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

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“We have put in place a robust plan to end the backlog in 2015. That's in our commitment,” Shinseki said.

Shenski also said President Obama was determined to help speed up the process.

“The president's been very clear. Veterans are a top priority with him and ending the backlog is a foremost in his mind. He has made that very clear,” he said.

According to recent reports, at least 70 percent of the disability claims take 125 days to process. CNN host Candy Crowley noted the number of backlogged claims was 164,000 in October of 2009; today it is 630,000.

Crowley pressed Shinseki on the agency’s efforts to tackle the problem.

Shinseki said a lack of funding was not the issue, noting that his department has received 40 percent in budget increases over the past four years, while most other agencies have taken hits.

He instead pointed to the massive amount of paperwork that needed to be transferred to digital formats, the need to sync with Department of Defense (DOD) records and the addition of more veterans who qualify for disability claims as reasons for the backlog.

The longtime Army veteran emphasized the VA’s efforts to end the backlog by the end of 2015, and noting a “new tool” to help in the process.

“We have today an automation tool that we didn't have two years ago, and it is called the Veterans Benefits Management System, it has already been fielded to 20 of our regional offices. We will be in all 56 regional offices by the end of this year,” Shinseki said.

The VA secretary acknowledged that the wait would still be too long, but said the agency has “put three million claims out the door,” noting that “there are going to be a few that are complex enough to run longer than we would like.”

“We can go and take those numbers and drill down into them, but again our commitment is we're going to end the backlog in 2015. This has been decades in the making, 10 years of war. We're in paper, we need to get out of paper, we still get paper from DOD and other agencies. We have commitments that in 2014 we will be electronically processing our data and sharing it,” Shinseki added.

Asked if Shinseki was “satisfied” with his performance over the past five years at the helm of the VA, the secretary responded: “No veteran should have to wait for claims as they are today. We have a fix for this, we're open for business, and we will end the backlog in 2015.”