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Official urges better handling of veterans' claims following reports

WASHINGTON—Saying that "there are flaws and we must act on them," a top official with the Department of Veterans Affairs is directing his staff around the country to take corrective steps based on recent news stories that revealed problems in its handling of disability benefits.

While at times critical of news coverage of his department, VA Undersecretary for Benefits Daniel Cooper wrote in a memo that recent articles by Knight Ridder and others "have some validity—we would be foolish not to read, learn and improve" from them.

A March 6 report in Knight Ridder newspapers detailed poor VA oversight of veterans groups, as well as long delays and inconsistent handling of veterans' claims.

"I expect each of you to read the basic articles, digest the underlying message and then take action to ensure you and your people learn from these writings," Cooper wrote in a March 17 memo to the agency's regional offices and other VA officials. "We may take umbrage at these articles, but we must learn from them and continue to improve by correcting the errors, the approach and the perceptions."

Cooper, a retired Navy vice admiral who took over the benefits division of the VA in 2002, wrote that the department has "made many positive changes in a relatively short time" and that the agency has "seen substantial progress." Further, he noted that the system is inherently complex and has evolved over the years to be as "fair and considerate as possible to the veteran"—an important point that he said recent stories ignored.

Cooper was traveling Tuesday and was unavailable for comment.

Last summer, Knight Ridder highlighted wide state-to-state disparities in the percentage of veterans who participate in the VA disability program, which compensates 2.5 million veterans for the ailments caused by military service.

This month, Knight Ridder detailed a range of problems in the VA's handling of disability claims, including high error rates, lengthy appeals delays, different treatment and veteran satisfaction levels among regional offices, and inconsistent training by veterans service officers who help veterans file claims.

The regional differences have also erupted as a significant issue in Illinois, which ranks low in the percentage of veterans participating in the program and in the average payments that veterans receive. In December, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on the issue, and Cooper, in his memo, cited both Knight Ridder and Sun-Times reporting.

"While I do not agree with all that has been written, especially the headlines for the majority of the stories, the fact is the authors, Knight Ridder in particular, have done extensive research," he wrote.

The most recent Knight Ridder stories also prompted questions from Congress. During a recent hearing in a House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee that deals with the VA budget, Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., zeroed in on the inconsistent training of VA-accredited veterans service officers.

When VA officials testified that they require no uniform training or testing of these claims helpers, Walsh, the subcommittee's chairman, responded: "Would that be a good idea? Since they're interpreting your laws, rules? Should there not be some sort of standards established?"

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans affairs subcommittee on disability assistance, said he plans to hold a hearing next month to examine issues relating to veterans service officers, backlogs in VA claims and disparities in how claims are handled by VA regional offices.

"It's important that we get the training that's provided to the veterans service officers to where it is a standard training and to make sure that the disability ratings that are being provided are uniform across the country as well," Miller said in a recent interview.

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To read the Knight Ridder investigation of the VA's disability claims process, go to: http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/special_packages/veterans/.

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