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Government watchdog sounds alarm over disability benefits for veterans

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A government watchdog on Friday warned that the Department of Veterans Affairs risked falling short on its goal to process disability claims on time by 2015 and urged changes to ensure faster access to health care.

The reports released on Friday are the latest reminder of the strain on the VA after 11 years of non-stop war, even as VA Secretary Eric Shinseki moves to overhaul the agency, an effort bolstered by funding increases under the Obama administration.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted advances at the VA, including efforts to move away from a paper system to submit and process disability claims, which are sometimes handwritten and often arrive incomplete. The VA is also processing more claims than ever, it noted.

But the VA hasn't been able to keep pace with the rising number of claims arriving from injured veterans and the GAO said its backlog reduction strategy "fell short of established criteria for sound planning."

"Without a comprehensive plan ... the agency risks spending limited resources on initiatives that may not speed up disability claims and appeals processes," the report said.

"This may, in turn, result in forcing veterans to continue to wait months and even years to receive compensation for injuries incurred during their service to the country."

The GAO's Daniel Bertoni told Reuters that it was far from certain that the VA would be able to achieve its goal of processing all claims within 125 days by 2015. The backlog of claims -- those in system for more than 125 days -- has more than tripled since September 2009.

"Never say never - they've made some significant inroads," Bertoni said. "But there's a lot of uncertainty about whether these initiatives will be ultimately be successful."

In a separate report, the GAO also renewed concerns about the VA's ability to ensure veterans get timely appointments for health care. It said outpatient wait times reported by the VA were "unreliable" and cited shortages of scheduling staffers among the bureaucratic problems contributing to longer waits.

Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Whip, wrote a letter to Shinseki saying the GAO audit showed "a large disconnect between VA internal goals and the results."

The VA, in written responses to the reports, said it broadly agreed with the GAO's conclusions. It noted steps it was taking to get veterans their disability benefits faster and said it would take steps to better measure the amount of time veterans wait for health care appointments.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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