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US Senator's View: End the veterans benefits backlog

With the hard-earned experience of two major wars over the past 12 years, Americans have developed a renewed understanding of the need to support our service members in battle and throughout their active-duty service.

With the hard-earned experience of two major wars over the past 12 years, Americans have developed a renewed understanding of the need to support our service members in battle and throughout their active-duty service.

Unfortunately, our troops' battles don't always end when they return home. In the past few weeks, I've heard from many veterans from the Duluth area and from across the state who have returned bearing the scars of war: mental and physical disabilities incurred while protecting our freedoms. All they expect is that in return for their service our nation keeps its promises to them.

With the end of the war in Iraq and the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, the number of disabled veterans who need care is increasing exponentially. Despite the Department of Veterans Affairs processing more claims today than at any time in history, veterans are waiting too long to receive the benefits they have earned, creating an unnecessary financial hardship for veterans and their families.

The VA reports that more than 550,000 veterans have been waiting longer than 125 days to have their claim processed. This is unacceptable, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired U.S. Army general who dedicated his life to military service and to taking care of our brave warriors, agrees.

While the VA is making progress, I believe there are common-sense measures Congress can undertake to bolster the VA's efforts to ensure our veterans are getting the care they need in a timelier manner.

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In response to Minnesota veterans and veterans organizations who told me about the hardships the VA backlog imposes on veterans, I introduced bipartisan legislation to help speed up the process.

My measure, known as the "Quicker Benefits Delivery Act," would remove several hurdles to getting claims processed quickly. The legislation also would ensure disabled veterans can get at least some help and support while their claims are being adjudicated.

Minnesota Congressman Tim Walz, a veteran, introduced identical legislation in the House.

First, my measure would allow local doctors to conduct disability medical examinations for veterans. This conserves VA resources, cuts back on long wait times at VA hospitals, enables quicker diagnoses of disabilities and eliminates unnecessary trips to the VA for veterans in rural communities.

The bill also requires the VA to award interim benefits to clearly disabled veterans whose cases still are undergoing review to determine the full extent of their disabilities. This would allow veterans to receive important benefits quicker, while the VA works to review their claims and make a final decision.

And for veterans who go back to school under the GI Bill, the bill would authorize the VA to pay housing benefits more quickly so student veterans can pay their rent on time.

In late June I outlined the bill for the Senate Veterans Committee, and while I work to advance our legislation in Washington, D.C., my staff met with veterans and their advocates in Duluth and communities across the state to get input on the backlog and discuss my efforts to end it.

My goal with this legislation is simple: to uphold the promises we made to our veterans by ending the backlog and getting them the benefits they earned and deserve.

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Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate

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