It took "biting monologues
" from comedian Jon Stewart to prod the
Obama administration to finally deal with the backlog of Veterans Administration claims, Sen. Richard Burr says.
But even though the waits are starting to decline, too many veterans are still waiting for their benefits, the North Carolina Republican said in Saturday's GOP address.
"When it takes a comedian to garner a response from our government, we are in bad shape," Burr said
. "While the backlog has begun to decline, we still have nearly 700,000 veterans and their families waiting for answers."
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Burr, the ranking member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, noted that over the past five years, Congress has authorized more than $600 billion to the VA for better veterans outreach and care.
However, the surge in financial support has not been matched "with an equivalent surge of responsiveness from the Veterans' Administration," said Burr.
"The now infamous backlog of claims reached a point of national embarrassment last year when a series of biting monologues from comedian Jon Stewart finally elevated the problem to the President’s desk and spurred his VA Secretary into action," said Burr. "It was only then we began seeing some signs of incremental progress."
There are still numerous problems with claims, which are often "riddled with errors" that put the burden back on veterans to file appeals, said Burr.
"More than a quarter million appeals are waiting to be resolved and the time it takes VA to act on appeals is worsening," said Burr. "As the nation’s military stands down from its war footing, veterans should not have to wage another battle here at home, this time against government bureaucracy."
Such delays have "real-life implications" for veterans, said Burr, "especially for those at risk of lapsing back into isolation or a downward spiral that can be difficult to stop."
The VA is taking steps to improve its staffing after Congress heard accounts from whistleblowers, said Burr, but more needs done.
"Our younger veterans are entering civilian life during one of the slowest economic recoveries in our nation’s history," said Burr. "Some states have passed laws that issue licenses to veterans, or certifications, for the skillsets they gained while in the military, provided their training met the state’s standard. Without reforms such as these that address the problem at its root, many veterans will end up retaking classes or tests they’ve already passed while in service."
However, short-term programs can't address veterans' long-term needs, Burr said.
Veterans are also facing problems with homelessness, said Burr, detailing a program in North Carolina that connects private capital and motivated veterans with government resources to rehabilitate state facilities and provide homeless vets with a place to stay and learn job skills.
"Rather than a top-down, government-centered approach, it’s citizen centered and it’s veteran focused," said Burr, noting that he's introduced legislation to force Washington to provide solutions for the needs of veterans.
"Our veterans understand these are challenging times and that the government is limited in its capacity, but they also have high expectations after the promises that have been made," said Burr. "The American ideals of liberty and opportunity are worth fighting for and preserving for our children. We need to harness some of that same spirit and work together on their behalf."
But the answers don't lie in new offices and employees, but with "Congress’ responsibility to ensure that VA programs are operating in the way they were intended."
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