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WASHINGTON — Eric K. Shinseki, the new Veterans Affairs secretary, said Wednesday he is trying to reduce the six-month delays in paying veterans' disability claims, and he wants to move quickly toward an all-electronic claims system that could speed up the process.
In his first appearance before Congress since becoming secretary, Shinseki said the VA is looking at a major switch that would phase out paper processing, possibly by 2012. In the meantime, the VA will hire 1,100 more staff this year to deal with the backlog of cases, which typically involve paper stacks "going halfway to the ceiling," he said.
"This is a brute-force solution," Shinseki told the House Veterans Affairs Committee, adding that a technological format is needed "to ensure timely, accurate consistent decision-making on behalf of our veterans. This is part of what our backlog is about. That will take investment, of course," he said.
In his testimony, Shinseki also said he was launching a topdown review of his embattled department and reiterated his promise to submit a "credible and adequate 2010 budget request" that will be cost-effective while fully sensitive to veterans in need.
"If it's going to be solved any faster, it's going to take leadership," he said of the challenge ahead, promising a "change of culture" at the government's second largest agency.
Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, is taking over the VA that was accused during the Bush administration of not doing enough to meet veterans' growing needs. Thousands of veterans currently endure six-month waits for disability benefits, and the VA is scrambling to upgrade government technology systems before new legislation providing for millions of dollars in new GI benefits takes effect in August.
In recent weeks, the Government Accountability Office found the VA was still lowballing budget estimates to Congress at the expense of tens of thousands of patients needing long-term health care. The VA also acknowledged at least nine cases of giving incorrect doses of drugs — mostly blood-thinning heparin — due to widespread computer glitches that it did not disclose to patients.
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., said that after several years of budget restrictions and growing backlogs, the VA must work hard to restore credibility among the nation's veterans.
"So many veterans view the VA as ‘Veteran's Adversary,"' he said.
Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., who chairs the oversight subcommittee, said he wants to ensure the VA remains mindful with its technology initiatives to "implement high standards" of quality given the department's past problems with maintaining electronic data.
"We all have our work cut out for us," Mitchell said.
Shinseki said he would review the "fundamentals in every line of operation."
"I intend to ... demand the highest levels of integrity, transparency and performance in leading the department through the fundamental and comprehensive change it must quickly undergo," Shinseki said.
"We will be measured by our accomplishments, not by our promises," he added.