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Friday December 15th, 2017 10:17PM

Congress approves bill to address VA claims backlog

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has sent the president a bill aimed at trimming a rapidly growing backlog of veterans' disability claims.

The House approved the bill by voice vote Friday during a brief session, sending the measure to President Donald Trump. The House is on recess, but a handful of lawmakers gaveled the chamber in and out of a session that lasted less than five minutes.

The veterans' bill, approved by the Senate Aug. 1, would reduce the time it takes for the Department of Veterans Affairs to handle appeals from veterans unhappy with their disability payouts. The measure is part of an ongoing effort to reduce a longstanding claims backlog and is a priority for VA Secretary David Shulkin, who calls the appeals process "broken."

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said he was pleased at the bill's passage.

"When it comes to putting our nation's heroes first, there can be no doubt that Congress has been hard at work," Roe said. Besides the claims bill, Congress also approved a measure to remove time restrictions on veterans' use of GI Bill benefits and cleared a $3.9 billion emergency spending package to fix a looming budget crisis and extend a program that allows veterans to receive private medical care at government expense.

Trump is expected to sign all three bills.

On disability claims, the measure passed Friday would overhaul the appeals process, allowing veterans to file "express" appeals if they waive their right to a hearing or the ability to submit new evidence. The VA could test the new program for up to 18 months until Shulkin could certify it was ready for a full rollout with enough money to manage appeals effectively. Lawmakers hope the legislation ultimately will reduce average wait times to less than a year.

Currently, veterans can wait five years or more to resolve appeals over disability claims.

"For too long our veterans and their families have faced unacceptable delays during the VA's benefits claims appeal process," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

The legislation offers no immediate fix for the bulk of the 470,000 appeals claims in VA's backlog; the changes would apply almost entirely to newly filed appeals.

The VA provides $63.7 billion in disability compensation payments each year to about 4.1 million veterans with disabling conditions incurred during their military service.

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