With staff members at the Baltimore office of the Department of Veterans Affairs spending a month in training, Maryland's senators called on VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to dispatch more analysts to help work through one of the worst disability claims backlogs in the nation.
The Baltimore staff is training through early May to help improve performance at the office, which has the worst error rate, one of highest percentages of backlogged claims and some of the longest wait times for disabled veterans.
In a letter Monday to Shinseki and Baltimore Director Michael A. Scheibel, Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski asked for the additional analysts to reduce any disruptions in service.
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"Maryland's veterans are depending on your leadership to ensure that they get their claims processed in a timely and accurate manner," wrote Cardin and Mikulski, both Democrats. "Comprehensive training of the staff in Baltimore is an excellent step in the right direction but must be paired with a fully functioning office."
The senators said the agency failed to develop a suitable contingency plan to maintain operations while the staff was in training.
Their request comes after The Baltimore Sun revealed problems at the office, which serves 450,000 veterans in Maryland. The VA announced a series of steps intended to improve performance.
A spokeswoman for the VA said additional staff is already in place and work isn't being negatively affected by the training. During the training, spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said, the Baltimore staff receives instruction in the morning and works with coaches on casework in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, offices in other parts of the country are helping to clear the Maryland backlog, Dillon said, and productivity continues to outpace last year's monthly output.
The local office processed between 1,200 and 1,400 claims each month between January and March, she said, roughly double the average production in previous months.
Dillon said the output for April to June is projected to top 4,000 claims.
After adding 35 claims processors, the Baltimore office now has about 130 on its permanent staff, and another 17 as part of a "surge team."
The error rate for the office stands at 26.8 percent, the highest in the country, according to the latest information available. The backlog is the third-highest. Of the nearly 19,000 disability claims under review, about 15,600, or 83 percent, are older than 125 days.
The average wait time for Maryland veterans to receive a ruling on a disability claim is 15 months. The national average is nine months.
One group, Concerned Veterans For America, launched a campaign Monday called MillionVetBacklog.com to demand increased accountability at the VA.
"Anyone can make a plan," said Pete Hegseth, CEO of the group. "It's the execution that's important.
"There is plan after plan and after plan, and the results fall short."
To veterans, Hegseth said, the delays are "immensely frustrating. They're told to take a number and wait and then wait some more and then wait some more."
Nationally, more than 887,000 disability claims are pending. More than 69 percent are older than 125 days.
Rich Dumancas, deputy director for claims in the American Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation division, said the VA should have been better prepared to address the influx of wounded servicemen and servicewomen from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The agency processed 4.1 million claims — a record number — since 2008. But veterans have submitted 4.6 million more.
The backlog and lack of resources isn't frustrating only to the veterans, Dumancas said. It's also trying for the staff at the Baltimore office — many of whom are veterans.
"The VA employees, they want to come to work and do the job and feel good about the work they just did," Dumancas said.