Each year on Memorial Day, we remember the sacrifices of those who have served and honor the lives of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. We have always been the land of the free and when our brave come home, we do all we can to support them.
We must also recommit ourselves to upholding our sacred promise that we will stand with them when they come home and provide the care they need to overcome the visible and invisible scars of their service. Their service ends, but our commitment to them never does.
Unfortunately, veterans' care is often put on hold due to bureaucratic delays that leave their earned benefits in limbo while their medical conditions may continue to progress. Our veterans in the valley are facing an even longer delay than many of their brothers and sisters in arms who live in other parts of the country. The majority of our veterans' claims are processed at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Regional Office in Oakland, which is facing a backlog crisis.
Currently, the Oakland VA Regional Office has one of the largest loads of backlogged cases with more than 80 percent of claims waiting over 125 days. From the day a veteran walks in the door to the day a benefit is issued takes about 541 days if it is processed in Oakland. That is about 225 days longer than the national average.
The VA is processing more claims than at any other time in history, but no veteran should be left fighting red tape in pursuit of the benefits they have rightfully earned.
In February, I met with VA Undersecretary for Benefits Brig. Gen. Allison Hickey. She reported that the VA had hired 50 new employees in Oakland to help reduce the backlog, and that the office was using new technology to help expedite case management. I am encouraged by these steps but will keep a watchful eye on the office to ensure that the backlog declines.
While the VA has made an earnest commitment to fix this problem, our veterans cannot continue to wait for the care they need. Congress must make preserving their dignity a top priority, and that requires immediate action.
Case delays often occur early in the claims process when the Department of Defense transfers records about a veteran's military service history to the VA. I am working to pass legislation that would require the Defense Department to provide the VA with certified, complete electronic files to the VA within 21 days. This bipartisan legislation would help keep the review process on track and remove one of the hurdles that get in the way of providing compensation in a timely manner.
Once the records are transferred, there are still a number of barriers that prevent the delivery of benefits. Veterans filing multiple claims at once are forced to wait until all of their claims have been adjudicated to receive any compensation. A veteran who files five claims might have one of the claims approved months before the other four, but he or she is forced to wait until the last four are cleared before receiving pay for the first claim.
Common sense says there is a better way to serve our veterans. If a veteran has been approved for an individual benefit, the wait for that benefit should end there. I'm working to pass legislation that gets veterans what they deserve sooner.
Until the VA can fully implement their turn-around plans, no veteran should be left holding the bag for the department's shortcomings. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has announced a long-term plan to shorten the claims process by 2015. Our veterans cannot wait that long, and that is why I'm supporting a bill that would serve as a bridge for those currently stuck in the backlog.
This legislation would provide a partial, provisional benefit for veterans whose case has been pending more than 125 days. This is a lifeline for former service members and shows our commitment to meet our sacred promise.
Our commitment to the nation's veterans has always been strong, but we have much more to do. Our work is not complete until every strip of red tape separating a veteran from the benefits they have earned is removed.
Please think about those who have done so much for our nation. Reflect on what they have given up to serve. Find a way to say thank you, not just on Memorial Day but every day.
U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Merced, represents California's 16th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.