Last July, the Texas state legislature created state strike force teams to help the state's 1.7 million veterans and their families receive disability compensation and pension benefits more quickly. The Texas Veterans Commission (TVC) oversees three teams: one travels statewide while the other two are located at the Department of Veterans Affairs regional offices in Waco and Houston.
Testifying at a Sept. 21 congressional hearing, James Richman of the TVC said the two eight-person teams in Waco and Houston are focusing on about 69,000 claims that are more than 125 days old. They work with veterans to fully develop their claims, then hand them over to VA for rating.
"Our mission in this endeavor is to improve the timeliness, and get veterans and their families the benefits they have earned and very desperately need – especially in this economy," Richman told member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
The subcommittee's chair, Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., said that by examining what Texas is doing to reduce the claims backlog, "we are hoping that this state strike force team will serve as a model to other states, and perhaps even lead (to) the creation of a similar federal strike force team."
As of Sept. 17, Richman said the state strike force teams have already reviewed more than 2,500 backlogged claims, and have delivered 852 fully developed claims to the VA regional offices in Houston and Waco. Those two offices recently have been highlighted in Texas news reports because of their poor performances.
According to a May 8 article in the Houston Chronicle, veterans were waiting an average of 263 days for the Houston office to process their claims; for Waco, the average wait time was 352 days. The two offices handle all disability and pension claims for Texas.
"The VA is full of hard-working, dedicated, well-intentioned people," Richard said. "But the backlog has been talked about for so long, and continued to grow, that the VA has become institutionally desensitized to the backlog. Make no mistake, the veterans are not desensitized to the backlog and to the timeliness of claims."
Richman said hundreds, perhaps thousands of claims cases at the Waco office are more than 730 days old. "They're working those as feverishly as possible, but that's a long time to wait for an answer on monetary benefits."
John Limpose, director of Waco's VA Regional Office, also testified at the hearing. Runyan asked him if any VA employees at Waco were being held accountable for the office's "dismal performance in claims processing."
"We hold people accountable for their individual performance standards, in that we will take appropriate action when deemed necessary for poor performance in serving our veterans," Limpose replied. "We have done so in the past and will continue to do so in the future."
The chairman of the Texas Veterans Commission, Eliseo Cantu, told the subcommittee about a letter he had received from the daughter of a World War II veteran. Her father had applied for disability benefits more than a year ago but had yet to receive any word from VA.
About two years later, Cantu got another letter from the same woman. She said that her father's disability rating had finally been decided, but he had died three weeks earlier.
"This is America's greatest generation, a warrior that put his life on the line for our country and did not get the proper compensation that he was entitled to – something has to be done at this level, at the congressional level," Cantu said. "Something has to be done to ensure that (VA) regional offices understand the need that's out there."