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Morning Joe
updated 3/29/2013 1:19:35 PM ET 2013-03-29T17:19:35

"When we came in, there was no plan to change that; we've been operating on a six month wait for over a decade," said Tommy Sowers, assistant Veterans Affairs' secretary, Wednesday.

Veterans Affairs’ Assistant Secretary Tommy Sowers blamed the previous Veterans Affairs administration for the recently revealed 600+ day wait that many veterans face when claiming disability.

The crux of the problem, Sowers said, is that they inherited an inefficient, paper-based claims system.

“Why are we still using paper in 2013?” Morning Joe‘s Mike Barnicle asked.

“Why in 2009 were we still using paper?” Sowers fired back. “When we came in, there was no plan to change that; we’ve been operating on a six month wait for over a decade.”

The wait now tops 600 days in many places.

“We know this process is taking too long and this is why we’ve put in a technology fix, but this is what we’re dealing with. This is an average claim, about 2.5 inches thick,” Sowers said, gesturing to the stack of papers and folders he’d brought with him. “This is what we inherited in 2009, millions of these paper documents with no plans to fix it.”

According to a recent study, 97% of claims are still made in paper, said co-host Willie Geist. In response, Sowers reiterated that the organization was determined to implement the system and teach new veterans how to use it.

Sowers also pointed out that delays on claims aren’t the same as delays on care—veterans are still able to access care at any Veterans Affairs hospital at no cost for five years after their service—and lauded his superior, Sec. Eric K. Shinseki for his work improving the care for veterans suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome and implementing a crisis help phone line.

Video: Disability claims for veterans: What's being done to solve the backlog?

  1. Closed captioning of: Disability claims for veterans: What's being done to solve the backlog?

    >> veterans coming home filing a first-time claim you come back from iraq and afghanistan you'll wait 500 to 600 days.

    >> most of these claims still proved on paper. why is it so slow?

    >> we don't know. we are looking from the outside, right? it's like looking at a broken down car on the side of the road and saying what is wrong with the engine when we can't look under the hood. they need more people, they got more people. everything they have asked for, congress and the veteran service organizations have given them. but the numbers continue to go up. the backlog continues to climb.

    >> that was part of our conversation yesterday on " morning joe " with the ceo and founder of the iraq and afghanistan's veterans of america paul rye could have expressing his frustration what the veterans face when they file for disability benefits. here with us now is the shift secretary of department of veteran affairs , tommy sowers. appreciate you being here.

    >> great to see here.

    >> i know you understand why this is so outrageous. if you come home with an injury, we will take care of you that some people are waiting as many as 700 days to have their claims proved. why is it taking so long to take care of our veterans ?

    >> look. both secretary and president obama know that disability claims backlog is unacceptable and they are impatient to fix it. this has been decades in the making and we are putting solutions in to fix it for good. one thing i want to make sure we are clear on from the very beginning that iraq and afghanistan veterans have been granted five years of cost-free health care so we have to separate compensation from care. not only have they been granted it, they are utilizing at a rate higher than any generation before 56% are. so if there is a veteran out there that is watching and seeing these numbers, they should know that they can comoo in any one of our facilities and they will join 800,000 iraq and afghanistan veterans that have. we know that this process is taking too long. that's why we have put in a technology fix. this is a claim, not an average claim. two and a half inches thick. in it are private medical records , department of defense medical records . this is what we inherit in 2009 . millions of these paper documents with no plan to fix it. so the president directed the secretary, don't just do things quickly. take care of the transformational effects to transform the department to move out of this paper into electronic.

    >> as paul pointed out there there has been a lot of money, a lot of resources to get this electronic program. there was a study out a couple of weeks ago showed 97% of the claims still filed on paper. if you have this new system why are still going through folders like that?

    >> this is a great question. this is what we receive. right now, there's a new program where you can submit your claim electronically. as long as we get this paper we will have challenge and why we need to partner with veterans and veteran services organizations. not only to file claims electronically but file them completely. we only get about 5% our claims with the paper work needed to rate a claim. 5%. we spend about six months going and trying to find private medical records , department of defense records. we have got to partner with folks to get that number up. then the second thing, real quick, we have about a million veterans that will be leaving the service -- service men and women leaving for service the next four years. we have got to educate the junior leaders out there that are going to sit down with those young service men and women and say what are you doing next? you're going to go and use the post-9/11 g.i. bill , great. gheed to educate them to file the claim when they get out of the the military right then and there is the best way to do it.

    >> if you can for public education , track the claim. when and where was it filed and what happened to it and where is it now?

    >> well, so when iup, i heard a lot of about this backlog and decided i'd go out to one of our offices that is processing these claims. when you go out to one of these offices they receive this paper. you learn a few things. one about 50% of the employees that are working these claims are veterans themselves. these are veterans trying to help veterans . about two-thirds of -- if this stack is all 800 and some odd thousand that are currently awaiting rating, about two-thirds of them are supplemental claims. one who is seeking additional care and compensation. so, you know, this is the challenge, though. i don't know the last time -- when was the last time you looked up something in the encyclopedia? that's what we are asking these folks to do but now we are transsixing to an electronic system where people don't have to search through here when did that injury occur, they just type it in.

    >> i don't think anyone doubts your intentions are good but what can you say to a veteran in reno, nevada, waiting almost two years to get that claim processed? what do you tell that guy who is sitting there with an injury, maybin internal, maybe it's external. what do you tell them?

    >> i say don't wait for care. you can come into any of our facilities. if you're in a crisis right now, you can call 1-800-273-talk. this is our veterans crisis line. over 700,000 veterans , military families, active duty military have called this number and we have saved almost 26,000 veterans in crisis. so for that veteran that is needing that care, they need to come in and get that care right now. on the compensation, look. both the secretary and the president know that we have got to fix this. for really over the past decade it's been about six-month wait.

    >> why in the year 2013 are you still dealing with paper? what has happened here?

    >> why in 2009 were we dealing with paper some when we came in, we inherited this paper process. there was no plan in order to transition this over. we had been dealing about a six-month average wait for a decade. this secretary -- look. this secretary and this president know how to make tough decisions when they are right decisions. they know how to look at something and say the veterans shouldn't have to wait this long. we will make this fix and put in a technology solution to lower that. right now the goal is 125 days.

    >> you guys have been in office four years, you said. you've got, as you pointed out, millions of veterans are going to be coming home or tens of thousands of veterans coming home over the course of the next couple of years. this seems like an emergency situation. people think you guys have been at this four years and the situation is worse than it was than when you guys came in four years ago. so people outside in the press and other places calling for the secretary to step down as chief of staff has just left. you seem a little besieged by the situation right now. if -- what do you need to address what is a pressing emergency situation and make this problem right on a quick time line?

    >> let me address those two parts. one is the question of leadership. look. a lot of our critics, we agree part of what they say. we know this is unacceptable and we know we need to get digits from d.o.d. when it comes to leadership and addressing things for our veterans , look. four years ago, the post-9/11 g.i. bill was just an idea and now 900,000 iraq and afghanistan veterans , including myself, have benefited from it. four years ago, post-traumatic stress was not treated the same way. agent orange was not treated the same way. gulf war syndrome was not treated the same way. this president and this secretary giving justice to veterans . probably the most important thing four years ago we were in two wars. we were in two wars that we didn't see an end to. if you want to talk about taking care of the troops, the fact when this president and this secretary leaves, these wars will be -- that is leadership.

    >> i want to ask you a question. my "time" magazine joe klein wrote a blog asking whether claims were processed in terms of severity. and saying that, you know, if they were not, perhaps this had something to do with the lobbying power within veterans administrations and veterans associations, you know, on the part of older veterans , that perhaps younger veterans with more severe issues weren't getting the attention they need. what would you say to that?

    >> joe is a friend of mine. you know, i should have explained to him we do prioritize our claims. if you're homeless, if you're in financial difficulties, if you're a degree of medical medal of honor recipient and i brought up the issue of agent orange . for four decades, you know, administration after administration had looked at agent orange and said that is probably not related to the current conditions and it took this secretary, wounded vietnam veteran to say it's time for justice and time to get this right. so we did prioritize the vietnam vets after four decades of waiting.

    >> tommy sowers, you're a veteran and working hard for your fellow veterans today. we have to do better and i hope you'll come back and keep us posted on this.

    >> thanks very much.

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