The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is offering what looks like a smidgen of progress to deal with a big backlog and a high error rate at the office that handles disability claims for Northern California vets.
Responding to a Thursday letter from 16 members of Congress from California, the VA issued a statement this morning that pledges it is "committed to doing everything within its authority" to improve the Oakland regional office's performance.
The Bee's editorial board is calling on the VA to fix the problems, pointing out the the average wait time of 313 days is well above the national average and that the backlog of 34,000 cases (80 percent of which are at least four months old) is the second worst in the country. In addition, about 74 percent of the claims are decided correctly by the office, 13 percent below the national average.
The office handles claims for service-related injuries and for mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, for veterans in 48 counties stretching from the Oregon border to the Bay Area and down the Central Valley.
Despite its problems, the Oakland office is not among the 12 nationwide scheduled to get a complete overhaul this year that includes a new computer system.
The VA statement today does not specifically put Oakland on that list, but does say it "will incorporate" some of the improvements. The agency also says that if it receives the necessary funding, the improvements will be made to the remaining 40 regional offices across the country by the end of 2013.
The VA says it is dealing with a record number of disability claims -- more than 1 million in each of the past two years -- because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an aging veteran population, Agent Orange cases from Vietnam and its own outreach efforts.
The VA's response so far isn't enough to satisfy Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Pleasanton Democrat who was one of those who signed the letter. He asked for specific steps to lessen the backlog of claims and called for a "definitive timeline of steps to improve the processing of claims."
"I am disappointed it has taken the VA so long to address these issues, and concerned that the response is not a concrete plan," he said in a statement.