Nightly News   |  March 27, 2013

VA Secretary Shinseki aims to eliminate claims backlog by 2015

Struggling with a growing backlog in claims for disability benefits, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki says digitizing records is a necessary step in resolving the problem. NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reports.

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>>> tonight, nbc news has obtained rare access to the man at the sent of a storm that some veterans groups are calling a national disgrace in this country. after two wars in which they were asked to sacrifice so much for their country, many veterans are now returning home to wait years for the benefits they were promised. almost a million american veterans are waiting for claims. that has left president obama 's secretary of veterans affairs on the defensive. tonight he is talking about what's being done to fix this. we get our report from our pentagon correspondent jim miklaszewski .

>> good morning, everybody.

>> reporter: in new york today the secretary of veterans affairs , toured a jobs fair for veterans sponsored by nbc universal . but this veteran himself wounded in vietnam is struggling with a huge backlog in claims for disability benefits.

>> i remember coming back from vietnam. we didn't do enough for youngsters then. we're still dealing with those issues today.

>> reporter: with a flood of veterans from the wars in iraq and afghanistan, the number of disabo disability claims has exploded. nearly 900,000 veterans are waiting for their claims to be processed. the average wait, 273 days. some have waited as long as three years.

>> this is not putting a man on mars. this is fixing a paperwork process.

>> reporter: the b problem is the v.a. still relies heavily on paper records. the department has spent $500 million on a new program to digitize veterans ' claims. but because of problems with the new computerized system it took longer to process some claims. the pentagon and v.a. are working together to combine their separate health records , hoping to speed up the benefits process. but the effort stalled because their computer systems were not compatible. since reporting this story, nbc news has been flooded with e-mails like this one from a retired v.a. nurse who said the backlog is wrong on every level. the v.a. is broken. the secretary pledges that long wait will be greatly reduced within two years.

>> i wish i had all these tools two years ago. we would have killed the backlog by now.

>> reporter: hundreds of thousands of veterans can hardly wait. jim miklaszewski , nbc news, the pentagon.