In January, the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Regional Office was the slowest processing center in the nation with more than 20,000 pending claims. In January, the average wait for claims to be processed in Baltimore was averaging almost one year.
I was outraged and personally offended that our veterans were being treated with disrespect by not having their disability claims processed in a timely manner. I joined U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD) in January to demand Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Eric Shinseki take immediate steps to address the outstanding claims.
I recently toured the Baltimore VA Regional Office and I am pleased to report that the VA has taken positive steps in reducing the current backlog of cases. In February there had been a backlog of 17,000 cases that were more than 125 days old and by June that backlog had been reduced to 11,000 cases. In May, the Baltimore VA Office had processed more than 3,200 cases, and the VA assured me that its goal is to fully process disability claims within 125 days by 2015.
While I am pleased that progress has made in reducing the backlog and that there is a pathway to improvement, I want the entire backlog erased as soon as possible. I will continue to monitor the situation to make sure that we devote the resources necessary to ensure prompt processing of disability claims and that there is adequate staffing in place to ensure timely decisions are made on claims.
The Baltimore Regional Office serves 484,013 veterans living in the State of Maryland, 2 percent of the national veteran population. The Regional Office’s jurisdiction includes all counties in the State of Maryland, and has an assigned staffing of 218. It also provides services at the VA Medical Center in Baltimore and Transition Assistance throughout the State.
Nationally, the slow rate at which the VA processes disability claims is very troublesome. Currently, more than 900,000 veterans wait an average of nine months for their disability claim to be processed. Over the last two years, there has been an increase in the wait for an initial decision from 166 days to 262 days for veterans across the United States, much of that attributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We made promises to the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces, and I consider one of the most important promises is that we would provide the services they need if they should become injured or disabled because of their service to our nation. It is time that we fully live up to that promise and make sure disability claims are processed in an efficient and timely manner.
Sen. Ben Cardin represents Maryland in the U.S. Senate.