One of my greatest privileges as senator of Ohio is the opportunity to meet with so many veterans who have served their country proudly, with many coming from Eastern Ohio. These heroes who have made tremendous sacrifices do not ask for much in return - just the benefits they have earned and deserve. Yet, like so many other veterans in Eastern Ohio, each veteran I've recently met with knows that the long wait to process disability claims can be frustrating - and demoralizing - as a result of the decades old backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Our nation owes its freedom to people who answered the call of duty and risked their lives for their families, neighbors and nation. Whenever they need assistance - be it for medical care as they age or a student loan to attend Eastern Gateway as they enter the next phase of their lives - they deserve a system that works with, not against them.
The VA backlog is not new. It has been with us for decades. It's not right. It's not fair. And it's not how a grateful nation should treat those who served.
Whether it's mental health services, assistance getting disability benefits, educational or employment support, too many veterans have to put up with excessive response delays from the VA.
That's why I am working with civic and community leaders to cut down wait times so veterans can get the benefits they've earned. The Veterans Service Commissions, like in Jefferson and Belmont, and Veterans Service Organizations, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, are critical to getting veterans into the VA. They provide invaluable community service - and help veterans navigate the VA. And, in the process, these vital organizations provide veterans, their families and the communities they support millions of dollars of benefits - benefits they would not have had without help.
In recent years we have increased benefits and beneficiaries, we've been at war for more than a decade, and we've seen an unprecedented economic downturn that has hurt Eastern Ohio more than most. These factors made the backlog sky rocket to close to 780,000 claims. Although Secretary Shinseki has made it his goal to end the backlog by 2015, our local veterans cannot afford to wait.
That's why I've been proud to work to pass VA budgets that invest more than a half a billion dollars into the Veterans Benefits Management System.
We have added thousands of employees to help process claims. But, when 490,000 veterans have waited longer than 125 days to have their claims processed, it's obvious we need to do more.
Recently, I sponsored the Veterans Services Outreach Act. This legislation would require the VA to notify veterans filing electronically that they can receive help and important time-saving information from VA-approved organizations tasked with assisting veterans.
I'm also working to pass the Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2013. This legislation would hold the VA accountable to veterans by reporting on both its projected monthly goals and actual production. We need to know if the VA is working on eliminating the backlog or just passing the buck. This bill would also establish a task force to hire and train people to process claims and develop new tactics to eliminate the backlog.
It's important that Eastern Ohio veterans get connected with local service organizations early on in the process - because these organizations have decades of experience and can help streamline this process, cut down the backlog and connect veterans with the support they need.
Solving the backlog is not a partisan issue. It is a solemn promise our nation must honor.
(Brown, D-Ohio, has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 2007.)