During a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, U.S. Senator Tom Udall continued to press Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on efforts to improve care for veterans in the wake of the appointment scheduling scandal and unacceptable delay in processing a backlog of benefit claims. VA officials assured Udall that the benefit claims backlog in New Mexico would be zero by the end of the year — something Udall has long called for.
“Too often, veterans are prevented from receiving the care they deserve because of barriers to access. Starting with disability claims, many veterans are not able to have their claim adjudicated in a timely manner,” Udall said, referencing a chart he brought to the hearing showing a bar graph of veterans who are still waiting to have their claims resolved by the Albuquerque VA hospital. “In New Mexico, progress to reduce the backlog has stagnated … and I’m hopeful we can get the resources to make progress in reducing the backlog once again.”
Veterans Benefits Administration Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits Danny Pummill assured Udall that the VA is working overtime to resolve veterans’ benefit claims and will catch up this summer. “We should have zero backlog this year,” Pummill said.
The hearing today follows Udall’s meeting with McDonald last week, in which he pushed the secretary to improve rural veterans’ access to care, the benefit claims backlog, research for ailments caused by exposure to burn pits, and other issues affecting veterans’ services, like appointment scheduling.
Nearly one year since news broke of unacceptable wait times for appointments at VA hospitals across the country, some New Mexico veterans still have to wait more than a month to see a doctor. “Last summer showed that we had a lot of work to do to ensure that veterans are seen on time and that the scheduling system was not being utilized in a fraudulent manner,” continued Udall, who has called for independent and criminal investigations of the troubled Albuquerque VA hospital.
McDonald has committed to working with Udall and the New Mexico VA’s new director to improve veterans’ services across the state, through steps including addressing the stagnated claims backlog at the Albuquerque VA hospital and decreasing wait times for appointments at local clinics.
Today’s hearing was part of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs’ ongoing work to hear testimony and question agency officials in preparation for drafting legislation to fund the VA for Fiscal Year 2016 later in the year.