By Kevin Liptak, CNN
(CNN) — The mountain of benefits claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs is a result of an outdated paper process and new levels of complexity in returning troops’ cases, the agency’s boss said in an interview Sunday.
“No veteran should have to wait for claims. If there’s anybody impatient here, I am that individual, and we’re pushing hard,” Gen. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Veterans in the last four years have joined us in unprecedented numbers,” Shinseki told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley, noting that while the backlog of cases had spiked in his tenure at the VA, millions of cases were still being processed.
“We’ve put three million claims out the door,” he said. “If you have an inventory of about 875,000, a million claims decisions going out a year, you know we’re taking care of business. There are going to be a few that are complex enough to run longer than we would like.”
The latest report from the VA, issued March 16, indicated a total of 895,838 benefits claims were pending. Almost 630,000 of those have been pending for more than 125 days.
The number of unprocessed requests for benefits and pensions has caused outrage among veterans and lawmakers, who question why it’s taking so long to provide servicemen and women the compensation they were promised.
Money, Shinseki said, isn’t the problem — while most government agencies in Washington are finding new ways to cut costs amid budget crunches, the VA has seen its budget increase by 40% since 2009.
The winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed to the pile of unprocessed requests for benefits, Shinseki explained, along with veterans who served multiple tours filing more than one claim.
An antiquated system still reliant on paper forms is also to blame, Shinseki said.
“We’re a paper process — have been for decades. This has been decades building, and we need to go digital, and we’re in the process of doing that,” he said.
The stack of pending claims, he vowed, would be cleared: “We have put in place a robust plan to end the backlog in 2015. That’s is our commitment.”