Lisa Cornwell

CINCINNATI: Members of Ohio’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs saying military veterans are waiting too long for responses to their disability claims and urging the department to act quickly to resolve the backlog.

Fifteen of the state’s members of Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, sent the letter Monday to Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki, describing the lengthy backlog as “unacceptable.”

“In our state of Ohio, some veterans have had to wait up to nearly a year for their claims to be processed,” the letter states. The delegation also wrote that “our veterans deserve better and more efficient service” from the department.

The VA said Tuesday that the total number of disability compensation claims pending before the Veterans Benefits Administration as of Monday was about 867,000.

Lawmakers in both parties agreed last fall to come up with more money to help the VA reduce its disability claims backlog, and the letter points out that the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act requires the VA to provide Congress with a report on its plan for that reduction.

U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, a Cincinnati Republican who signed the letter, said Tuesday that the delegation is looking forward to the report, but it wants action to reduce the backlog as quickly as possible.

“These men and women who have worn the uniform of our country and often have put their lives on the line deserve to be treated better than they currently are by the VA,” Chabot said.

VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz said the agency received the letter and will respond to the concerns. In an emailed statement, the VA said it had successfully installed a new digital, paperless system to speed the processing of claims in 18 regional offices by the end of last year and expects to install the system in all 56 regional offices by the end of 2013.

“We recognize that too many veterans are waiting too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” the statement said, adding that fixing a decades-old problem isn’t easy.

The VA had said in a statement earlier this month that it completed a record-breaking 1 million claims per year the last three fiscal years, but that ending reliance on the paper system was critical to timely and accurate claims processing.

While Chabot said that the digital paperless system is encouraging, “let’s not make that an excuse to delay folks currently.”

He said his office has received numerous calls and letters from veterans frustrated with the slowness of the current claims process.

The most recent VA figures, updated in November 2012, show Ohio veterans waiting an average of 330 days — 58 days longer than the national average of 272 days for disability compensation, according to Lutz.

“I understand the challenges that the VA faces,” Chabot said.

He said that the VA is a very large organization “that for the most part works very hard, but it is a bureaucracy and sometimes they need to improve.”