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By John Hinton, Winston – Salem (NC) Journal
Disabled veterans, their children and the spouses of dead veterans will receive a 1.5 percent cost of living increase in their benefits Jan. 1, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will get an increase of $294 million to help it reduce the backlog of veterans’ disability claims.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., announced the increases Thursday in a statement released by her Washington office.
“As our economy slowly improves, this increase in compensation will help disabled veterans and their families get by,” Hagan said. “However, too many veterans still face delays in receiving any disability compensation, so I’m pleased the VA will receive additional funding to help clear the backlog once and for all.”
The annual cost of living increase was signed into law Thursday by President Barack Obama, according to the White House press office.
The additional $294 million for the VA was allocated as part of the bipartisan legislation that Obama signed into law in October to end the partial government shutdown, Hagan said.
That money will be used to pay overtime for VA employees processing disability claims, accelerate the agency’s efforts to convert paper records to electronic records, and help military personnel leaving the armed services to move into civilian life.
There are about 23 million veterans in the United States, and more than 770,000 of them live in North Carolina, according to the VA website.
As of Nov. 16, the VA had 697,389 disability compensation claims, the agency said. More than 393,000 of those claims are part of the backlog, which means they have been pending more than 125 days.
In mid-November, more than 38,000 disability claims by N.C. veterans were pending its Veterans Benefits Administration Regional Office in Winston-Salem. Nearly 25,000 have been pending more than 125 days, local VA officials have said.
“I will continue to monitor the backlog at the Winston-Salem regional office until every North Carolina veterans’ claim is answered in a timely manner,” Hagan said.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., pointed to Burr’s statement to the Winston-Salem Journal earlier this month in which Burr said that veterans throughout the state have told him that they are frustrated with the VA claims process.
By 2015, the VA aims to eliminate the backlog of disability claims in all of its regional offices. The agency has completed 1 million claims a year over the past three fiscal years, the VA said in a statement.
“But too many veterans have to wait too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” the VA said.
SOURCE: Stars and Stripes at http://www.stripes.com/news/veterans/benefits-for-vets-to-increase-1-5-percent-starting-jan-1-1.254124