Local veterans offer input on how to tackle VA backlog

Melanie Radke and her husband devoted years of service to our country with the U.S. Navy. When they left active duty military service they immediately filed for veterans benefits they had earned.

U.S. Navy veteran Melanie Radke and U.S. Air Force veteran Ben Nieters describe their experience filing benefits claims when members of Sen. Al Franken’s staff visited Anoka-Ramsey Community College Coon Rapids campus June 17. Photo by Sue Austreng

U.S. Navy veteran Melanie Radke and U.S. Air Force veteran Ben Nieters describe their experience filing benefits claims when members of Sen. Al Franken’s staff visited Anoka-Ramsey Community College Coon Rapids campus June 17. Photo by Sue Austreng

Melanie’s paperwork turned around in just 30 days since she filed after returning to her home state of Minnesota. After all, the St. Paul Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is the “best in the country,” according to Marc Kimball, Sen. Al Franken’s deputy state director for communications.

But Radke’s husband filed where he had been serving in Virginia, as he had been advised.

The Virginia regional office was backlogged and, as Melanie puts it, “Virginia and Minnesota couldn’t talk to each other” about her husband’s claim for benefits.

“It took over a year for my husband to get his disability rating (and receive benefits),” Melanie said.

Franken finds the backlog and the resulting delays in veterans benefits appalling.

“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 from the VA,” Franken said.

To remedy the claims backlog, last month Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) announced the introduction of the Quicker Benefits Delivery Act, a bipartisan, bicameral bill aimed at tackling the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefit-claims backlog.

“After these brave men and women put their lives on the line for us, the least we can do is ensure they are getting the benefits they have earned in a timely manner,” Walz said.

“I recognize this problem was not created, nor will it be solved, overnight, but we can and must do better.

“Our bipartisan legislation will enhance the VA’s current efforts to break the backlog by helping them become more efficient, allowing them to hand down quicker, more accurate decisions to help end the backlog and get veterans the benefits they have earned.”

June 17 Franken sent staff members to Anoka-Ramsey Community College Coon Rapids campus and 19 other locations throughout Minnesota. The purpose: to meet with veterans and veterans advocates and get input on their experience with the backlog.

Radke and U.S. Air Force veteran Ben Nieters met with Franken staff members Lisa Fobbe and Kimball at the college.

Today, more than 600,000 veterans benefits claims are caught up in the backlog, said Kimball.

According to Kimball, that backlog is forcing veterans to wait an average of 300 days for their claims to be processed.

Nieters is among those 600,000 caught in the backlog.

“I had over a year wait on benefits,” Nieters said. “I was just trying to get medical benefits, get my rating. Every time I called they just said, ‘It’s backed up.’ It’s so frustrating – I hate the VA.”

Anoka County Veterans Services Director John Kriesel also met with Franken’s staff at the college June 17.

Kriesel, who said his office saw 7,100 vets last year and currently sees 30-35 vets daily, said he sees that frustration every day.

“Lots of veterans get burned out on the process of the system with scheduling, paperwork, office visits, etc. and I don’t want them to have to come to our office five, six, seven times when they already feel like they’re falling through the cracks,” said Kriesel.

Kriesel promised he’d never turn anyone away who came to his office for help with veterans benefits.

The Quicker Benefits Delivery Act

The Franken-Walz bill was written after engaging veterans and groups representing them at the local, state, and national level to determine where the current problem lies.

While there is no silver bullet that will end the backlog overnight, the legislation aims to help tackle the backlog in the following ways.

• Removing bureaucratic 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.

• 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 cases.

• Authorizing VA to pay housing benefits under the GI Bill to student veterans in a more timely way.

Franken also plans to re-introduce legislation to make health care more accessible to veterans living in rural areas.

To learn more about Franken’s efforts to end veterans benefits claims backlog and his measures to make health care more accessible to veterans in rural areas, call 612-437-3270.

Sue Austreng is at sue.austreng@ecm-inc.com

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