Local veterans weigh in on benefits backlog

Houston resident Michelle Smith speaks with representatives from U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz’s office during a listening session June 21. Pictured with her is Fillmore County Veterans Service Officer Jason Marquardt. Lauren Perry/The Caledonia Argus

Houston resident Michelle Smith speaks with representatives from U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz’s office during a listening session June 21. Pictured with her is Fillmore County Veterans Service Officer Jason Marquardt. Lauren Perry/The Caledonia Argus

By Emily Bialkowski
Caledonia Argus

Representatives from U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz were in Caledonia June 21 to collect evidence supporting legislation that will help tackle the veterans benefits claims backlog – the Quicker Benefits Delivery Act.
The situation is forcing hundreds of thousands of returning veterans to put their lives on hold for many months while their claims are being processed. Nearly 600,000 veterans are in the Veterans Affairs (VA) backlog.
Houston veteran Michelle Smith and veteran Brenda Johnson, who lives in Iowa, attended the meeting to voice their support for any effort that will help their peers get answers.
“I’m here because I want to be able to share my story and hope in doing so it will help other veterans,” Smith said.
“We have a problem, a big problem,” Johnson added.
During the meeting, both veterans spoke of red tape and delays for veterans waiting to find out if they qualify for benefits – benefits entitled to them for their service.
For example, if a soldier suffers a dibilitating back injury during service, they would get evaluated by a military physician and then wait and wait for an answer as to whether the injury was attained during service and a determination on what percentage of disability they have.
The soldier would then have to rapidly decide if they accept the determination and then wait for benefits to kick in. The problem lies in the fact that some veterans have waited a year for an answer.
“To navigate it you get stoppage everywhere,” Johnson said. “They need a book and you need to be able to go right down the line.”

Quicker Benefits Delivery Act
The Quicker Benefits Delivery Act forces three key points to expedite claims, including:
• Removing red tape by allowing veterans to see local doctors for their initial diagnosis and avoid long wait times at VA hospitals. This will conserve the VA’s resources and enable quicker, more accurate rating decisions for veterans.
“This will be especially helpful in more rural parts of Minnesota where we’re not as close to a VA facility,” said Bruce Barnum, a representative from Franken’s office.
• Requiring the VA to swiftly award interim benefits to disabled veterans based off their initial diagnosis when the diagnosis clearly supports such awards. This will allow veterans to receive important benefits quicker while the VA continues to review their case.
• Authorizing VA to pay housing benefits under the GI Bill to student veterans in a more timely way.
The bill is supported by both Republicans and Democrats and is bicameral, meaning the same version will pass through the House and Senate and make its way to the president’s desk faster.
“We have a responsibility to take care of the men and women who have  served our nation and right now veterans are waiting too long to start receiving the benefits they’ve earned,” Sen. Franken said in a press release.
“After these brave men and women put their life on the line for us, the least we can do is ensure they are getting the benefits they have earned in a timely manner,” Rep. Walz said.
The topic continues to gain steam. A letter dated April 26 from 67 senators pressed the President for immediate action.
“In the last four years, the number of claims pending for over a year has grown by over 2000 percent, despite a 40 percent increase in the VA’s budget,” the letter said. “As a reminder, during this same time period, Congress has given VA everything it has asked for in terms of more funding and more employees; however, this has not eliminated the backlog of claims.”
The backlog includes any claim over 125 days old.

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