We owe veterans everything we can do to enable them to be as successful in their communities as they were in their military formations. —Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki
SALT LAKE CITY — Brett White joined the Army at 17, with hopes of becoming a police officer, park ranger or Forest Service ranger.
By the time he left the Wounded Warrior Project 11 years later, his shoulders were injured so badly in his service in Iraq that he couldn't hold his newborn daughter. And his career and life plans had changed.
White accessed compensation and benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, though it took him some time to be OK with that.
"I felt like, dude, I'm a freakin' drain on society," White, 30, said of his first year after military service.
Since working with the Veterans of Foreign Wars and later Disabled American Veterans, White is more comfortable with the assistance. He has received psychological treatment, dental service and treatment for service injuries to his ankles, shoulders and back.
"The truth is, yeah, we need some help," White said.
VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki was in Salt Lake City on Tuesday to discuss the department's promise to eliminate the backlog of veterans' claims by 2015.
Veterans today, Shinseki said, "wait too long to receive the benefits they have earned. That has never been acceptable, and that is why we are executing a robust plan to fix this decades-old problem."
In April, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced an initiative to speed up the response for claims that are one year or more old.
By the end of 2015, no claim will take more than 125 days to process and will be 98 percent accurate, Shinseki said.
Veterans Affairs completed 4.1 million paper claims over the past four years and took in 4.6 million paper claims.
Some of the backlog resulted from claims from past wars, including three new diseases associated with the Agent Orange chemical warfare in Vietnam, nine new diseases associated with Operation Desert Storm veterans, and all veterans with "genetically verifiable" post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the center of the change is the Veterans Benefits Management System, which VA officials say will eventually put all claims information online.
"Two years in development, VBMS will transform how we operate," Shinseki said.
Veterans Affairs also plans to improve the training of those processing claims and restructure the business processes. Workers will prioritize the oldest claims first, which will help eligible veterans collect compensation benefits more quickly.
Salt Lake City had been using the system since November 2012 as one of two VA test sites. VBMS has now been implemented in all 56 regional offices, ahead of schedule, Shinseki said.
In Utah, all of the claims more than two years old have been addressed, he said, and VA workers are now addressing those that are at least a year old.
"We owe veterans everything we can do to enable them to be as successful in their communities as they were in their military formations," Shinseki said.
Four years ago, the average wait time for processing a claim was 191 days. That ballooned to 260 days after claims were opened on the special cases in 2010, Shinseki said. The goal is to cut that time down to 125 days by the end of 2015.
Offices are starting to scan documents and cut back on paper claims, Shinseki said, but he is unsure as to when all claims will be paperless.
"This is a big crossover year for us, so we are turning off the spigots of paper even as we're standing up our automation capability," he said.
Many veterans are not aware of the benefits they are due, said Larry Dawson, outreach specialist with the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dawson works to reach veterans and their families and help them become more aware of the benefits they can receive. The VA's efforts to cut back on backlogs "will be one of the most positive things they could do," he said.
Local VA representatives are reaching out to veterans to help them be aware of the benefits and compensation for which they qualify, said Karl Pfanzelter, with the Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs Regional Office.
"Its kind of a debt that the country owes their veterans, and the faster we can pay them off, the better," Pfanzelter said.
White is now receivng an education in health and respiratory therapy. It has been stressful at times waiting for compensation to come through, he said, so if Veterans Affairs can deliver on its promise, it will be a good thing.
"It's nice to have things taken care of," White said. "It helps out a ton. I've had to go through a lot of transitions."