DANVILLE — When Illinois American Legion Division Commander Bob Henderson meets with central Illinois veterans, the disability claims backlog is the No. 1 concern he hears about.
Henderson, of Champaign, met Thursday with U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, at the Veterans Affairs campus in Danville to discuss veterans' having to wait up to a year to learn whether their claims were approved. Some go more than six months after filing a claim without hearing a thing, Henderson said.
"They are really mad," Henderson told Kirk in a brief sit-down meeting at Liberty House, a disabled veterans group home on the Danville campus of the Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System.
Kirk told Henderson that he and others must keep the pressure on VA officials to continue chipping away at the backlog, which for Illinois veterans means waiting an average 353 days to hear whether their claims have been approved, Kirk said. The VA's Chicago regional office processes claims for all Illinois veterans, and has the sixth-highest backlog in the nation, down from the fourth-highest last summer, according to Kirk.
The ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Kirk also toured the Danville VA's Liberty House. It's one of two group homes for disabled veterans that are part of the Green House concept, which focuses on more personal care. Residents have their own bedrooms, a communal living room, kitchen and dining room, giving it more of a home-like feel than an institutional one.
The Champaign-born Kirk said he worries the aging Danville VA campus has been falling behind the times and needs more funding for physical updates, but added that the recently built Green House homes are the best and most important part of the campus. He said he fully supports investing several million dollars into developing on the Danville campus housing and services for veterans who are homeless or have mental health issues.
"That's a high priority for me, and one I think I can get done," he said.
The Danville campus was one of 34 VA sites identified in a strategic study for development of housing opportunities for homeless and at-risk veterans. Plans call for construction of 65 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments for homeless veterans and their families on a 15-acre site on the Danville campus. Construction is tentatively set to begin late this summer.
As for the backlog of disability claims, Henderson said he believes the solution is simply a matter of devoting more manpower to process them. That, he said, means more funding.
Kirk joined U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-South Dakota, in crafting a 10-point plan to address the backlog. It was passed into law last month as part of the omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014. The plan includes $20 million for upgrading computer hardware at regional offices; $10 million for targeted overtime and training for claims processors; and $12.9 million to hire additional personnel to expedite processing appeals from veterans whose claims were denied.
Kirk said he intends to hold the VA accountable to the 10 points of the plan in place. He said his goal is for veterans' maximum waiting time to decrease to 125 days, and he encouraged Henderson and members of other veterans organizations to stay actively involved in getting the backlog addressed.
Henderson said 125 days "wouldn't be all bad."
"But we'd like it lower," he said.