Gov. Rick Perry said the state will fund a new initiative into 2011 to reduce a statewide backlog of more than 38,000 pending veterans benefits claims.
Perry earlier this month authorized the Texas Veterans Commission, a state veterans’ advocacy agency, to develop a Claims Processing Assistance Team that will help expedite the backlog. The team will include 12 new veterans counselors who will be split between the Veterans Affairs Regional Processing Centers in Waco and Houston.
Speaking to about a dozen local veterans at the Hewitt Veterans of Foreign Wars Post on Monday, Perry said the state is allocating $393,000 that will fund the positions through the end of the 2011 fiscal year.
“Entirely too many of our veterans waiting on a response from the VA hear, ‘Just keep waiting,’ ” Perry said. “Considering the risks they took in fighting for our freedoms, our veterans deserve better.”
Of the claims awaiting processing statewide, about 20,000 are in Houston and about 18,000 are in Waco. About 38 percent have been pending for at least four months, Perry said.
Perry said that the Texas Legislature would decide in the 2011 session whether to continue funding the program.
The new initiative was met favorably by veterans attending the Monday press conference. Randy Vasser, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War for 14 months, said he waited four to six months on two different claims with the VA after filing for benefits two years ago.
“I had filed the claims on my own and got frustrated, and some folks recommended that I look into the TVC because they have a lot of experience in helping other veterans,” Vasser said. “Once they got involved it got resolved really quickly. So I’m happy that they’re going to be able to help out more veterans.”
Brig. Gen. Karen S. Rankin, chairwoman of the Texas Veterans Commission, said the commission’s experience and knowledge on the claims process will better assist veterans in providing information on their claims.
She estimated that each veterans counselor can move through 850 to 1,000 claims each year.
“If the veteran does not have an advocate like ours assisting with his claim, it is never going to go through the VA,” Rankin said. “The VA routinely denies a claim on the first submission. And it’s not because they’re mean, but it’s just that the system is so complex and it’s complicated. . . . It takes someone who is well-versed in the nuances of the claims process to know everything you have to have and get it right.”
James Richman, director of claims representation and counseling for the veterans commission, said much of the work will involve identifying claims that are ready to move forward and helping gather evidence for claims in the development phase to prepare them for VA officials to make a final decision.
“We can go through the cases and say to the veteran, ‘This is what the VA is going to need from you to process your claim. How can we get it?’ ” Richman said. “We can act as that liaison to put everything together instead of waiting for the VA to send out a letter a couple of months later about it, and the veteran may or may not be able to respond in a timely manner — eliminating all that lag time that keeps the claims from moving forward.”
Richman said this initiative will also free up the VA to devote more staff and resources toward decision-making to hand down quicker rulings on claims.
State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, attended the press conference and offered praise for the program.
“The main thing is we want to do the right thing by our veterans in getting them access to their benefits, and I applaud Gov. Perry for using this unique opportunity to help our veterans,” Anderson said.