Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski holds a press conference with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki to discuss the VA's plans to improve the disability compensation claims backlog at the Baltimore VA Regional Office. On the left is U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / February 19, 2013)

The Baltimore office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the nation's worst performer in processing disability claims, will receive more employee training, an influx of senior staff and a new digital processing system ahead of schedule, under a plan outlined Tuesday by VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

The infusion of resources is intended to reduce a 26.2 percent error rate and help reduce the backlog of outstanding claims by disabled veterans.

"What we have found since the beginning of the war — and our war is now 10 years old — when our veterans return, though they face the nightmares of war, they often face a quagmire" with the claims process, Mikulski said. "We're going to use the best tools of the digital age to help the warriors of the modern age."

The moves follow a Baltimore Sun report that found that the error rate and the backlog in disability claims in Baltimore are the highest in the country.

The Baltimore office serves 450,000 veterans in Maryland. Officials have set goals of improving accuracy to 98 percent by 2015 while reducing the average wait time for a benefits decision from 11 months to four.

Of the nearly 20,000 claims pending, about 16,800, or 84 percent, are more than 125 days old.

The VA added 35 employees last month to the 93 already processing the claims of Maryland veterans in the Baltimore office, said VA Undersecretary Allison A. Hickey.

That was on top of 17 workers the agency added in December as part of a "surge team" to reduce Baltimore's backlog.

As a result, the office more than doubled the monthly number of claims decisions, from 448 in December to 939 in January. Officials said the teams would remain on site this month and next.

Mikulski, chairwoman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said she wants Congress to spend $2.1 billion in the coming federal fiscal year on processing disability claims, which is more than double the amount provided in 2007.

"I can assure you, I am going to prod the process," she said. "I am going to crack my budgetary whip. I don't have a magic wand, but I do have a gavel and I intend to use it."

Shinseki, a retired Army general, said VA employees have "long lacked the right training and tools to meet our expectations."

While the agency has processed a record 4.1 million paper claims since 2008, veterans have submitted 4.6 million more.

"Many veterans, including those in Maryland, have to wait too long to receive the benefits they've earned and that's never been acceptable," Shinseki said. "We've begun implementing a robust plan to fix this decades-old problem."

With advances in military medicine, the claims have grown more complex. Service members in Afghanistan and Iraq are 10 times more likely to survive their wounds than those who served in World War II. Nearly half the veterans of the conflicts of the past decade are seeking disability benefits.

Shinseki said the solution lies in technology and training.

"Simply put, we must hire the best people, train them, expose them to inspiring leadership and equip them with the right tools," he said. "We owe our veterans everything we can do to enable them to be as successful in their communities as they were in their formations."

According to Hickey, problems at the Baltimore office were worsened in 2007, as the Defense Department and the VA responded to reports about patient neglect and deteriorating living conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and other facilities.

Officials set up teams in three regional offices, including Baltimore, to develop a new system to process claims for the most severely injured veterans at their discharge.

Those claims can take four times the resources of a typical claim, Hickey said.