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Veterans secretary says VA slashing backlog of benefit claims

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Department of Veterans Affairs has doubled the number of claims it decides each month and slashed a mountainous backlog of benefit requests dating back years, Secretary Anthony Principi says.

That backlog, which generated widespread concern on Capitol Hill and among veterans groups as it ballooned during the 1990s, has been cut from 600,000 to 394,000 claims in recent months.

``We decided to really declare war on that backlog and took some rather bold steps to address it,'' Principi said in an interview with The Associated Press. ``We're really getting this backlog under control and we did it through sheer focus and discipline, performance measurements and production goals.''

VA claims managers now resolve some 70,000 claims a month, more than double last year's monthly rate of 29,000, he said.

In addition, the department has established a ``tiger team'' of managers in Cleveland that ruled on claims for about 28,000 veterans over the age of 70 who had waited more than a year for an answer, he said.

Veterans hailed Principi's commitment to the issue, but say it remains to be seen whether the agency is properly deciding claims.

``We have seen the figures where VA has been increasing their production. I believe Secretary Principi is seriously concerned about the state of the VA backlog and the adjudication process,'' said Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans.

``Our concern, however, is that while they are increasing their production, if they are not getting them right the first time they are no better off than if they weren't processing those cases,'' he said.

Principi said he didn't have exact figures but that the majority of the processed claims approve benefits for the veterans requesting them.

``It's a case study that things can, in fact, turn around _ not only in private sector corporations but in government bureaucracy as well,'' said Principi, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Vietnam War veteran.

The VA, the second-largest government agency with 220,000 people, has been besieged with caseload problems. Last year, Congress blasted the department for training problems that resulted in inaccurate decisions on four of every 10 claims for veterans disability payments.

Newly confirmed by the Senate last year, Principi told Congress and the General Accounting Office, its investigative branch, that fixing those problems would be one of his top priorities.

He implemented GAO recommendations to set up a system to track the outcome of video conferencing and other state-of-the-art training methods.

Looking forward, Principi said he has set up ``triage'' teams in various regions_ Texas, Florida, Washington, for example _ to handle massive amounts of claims and prevent future backlogs.

He said the department is not favoring speed over accuracy.

``It's not that we're just rushing these decisions and forgetting about the quality aspect of it,'' Principi said. ``We've focused on both timelines and quality.''
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