ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — An effort to clear a national backlog of veterans benefits claims is making things worse in Minnesota.
County veterans services directors say it now takes as long as nine months to process claims that previously took about 90 days, the St. Cloud Times reported.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has taken fire for a national backlog that's resulted in some veterans waiting more than two years for claims to be processed. The federal agency's goal is to eliminate the backlog by 2015.
Minnesota had a better-than-average record of processing claims quickly. So the Veterans Benefits Administration gave its St. Paul regional office thousands of additional claims from other regional offices that were far behind.
That means Terry Ferdinandt, Stearns County veterans service officer, is just now receiving responses for claims he helped veterans file in February.
"For us here, it's really frustrating," he said. "Our guys, they deserve better."
The cases range from veterans of World War II, Korea or Vietnam who might be filing claims for the first time for service-related health issues to veterans back from recent deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
George Fiedler, Benton County's veterans services director, said he is seeing the same delays.
"That's true all across Minnesota," he said.
Sen. Al Franken has been pressing the VA to fix the problem. He wrote to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in August, questioning the decision to send the additional claims to St. Paul.
"Minnesota veterans should not be punished precisely because our (regional office) works more effectively than others elsewhere in the country," Franken wrote.
Shinseki responded that the agency adopted the strategy to ensure that the oldest claims are completed first.
"The national workload management approach ensures that veterans who have waited the longest receive a decision as soon as possible, regardless of the state in which they reside," he wrote in October.
In a statement to the Times last week, Franken said he and Rep. Tim Walz are still trying to reduce the delay.
"The fundamental issue is making sure Minnesota veterans are getting the benefits they're entitled to as quickly as possible," Franken stated. "I introduced legislation to make that happen, but until it passes, I will continue to press the VA to fix the backlog problems we have going on here in Minnesota."
The agency is moving toward a paperless claim system that will eliminate geographic boundaries and streamline processing, the VA has said.