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April 6, 2013

Veteran budget to increase

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

“I think I can say without fear of contradiction that you will be seeing additions to the backlog for the coming months,” McDonough said.

Shinseki said the key to improving VA services was to eliminate paper records through a new computer system that is being rolled out to VA regional offices throughout the country. The Veterans Benefits Administration, which oversees the disability claims, would get up to $2.5 billion, a 13.6 percent increase, in the coming fiscal year if Congress goes along with the request.

Over the years, the VA has consistently underestimated the progress it projected to make on the backlog. Shinseki was asked why veterans should believe the agency now as it sticks with the mantra that the backlog will be broken in 2015. Shinseki said it has taken time to develop the computer system that will improve efficiency and speed the approval process.

“I’m pretty confident of the path that we’re on,” Shinseki said.

The budget also calls for a 7.2 percent increase for mental health care services as part of the overall $63.5 billion budget. The proposed increase reflects concerns about ensuring that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder have timely access to care.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, voiced skepticism that more money for the VA would improve results.

“Congress has given VA everything it has asked for to overcome perennial challenges such as the backlog and mental health care access,” Miller said. “For its part, VA has failed to deliver the results department officials have been promising for years.”

Congress approved tax breaks for companies that hire veterans back in late 2011. Employers get up to a $5,600 tax credit for hiring a veteran out of work for more than six months, or up to $9,600 for hiring a disabled veteran out of work for the same amount of time. The credits were among several factors that helped lower the unemployment rate for the latest generation of veterans from 12.1 percent to 9.9 percent last year. The Obama administration said that making the credit permanent reduces employer uncertainty about the long-term viability of the credit.

, which should lead to more businesses participating in the program.

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