Sgt. Ron Portillo of Henderson, left, sits next to his mobility dog Sonya, in this Sept. 5, 2007, file photo. Veterans in Southern Nevada and all over the country have been fighting an uphill battle as a staggering backlog of disability claims has built up, and now U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is working to break the logjam.

Nevada Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey teamed up Thursday to take a stab at the staggering backlog of veterans’ disability claims.

In a teleconference with reporters in their home states where the Department of Veterans Affairs benefits offices have some of the longest delays, they announced creation of the bipartisan VA Backlog Working Group in which their staffs will work with veterans groups and the VA in resolving a problem that’s been on the radar since 1994.

The backlog affects the gamut of war eras from World War II vets to those returning from Afghanistan.

“We have a 1945 solution to a 21st century problem that just isn’t working,” said Heller, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Heller and his staff met in June with 28 veterans organizations and representatives from active duty installations in Nevada to discuss the backlog and bureaucratic red tape among the VA regional benefits office in Reno and other federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Defense.

“Nevada is one of the worst,” he said. “I look at some of the backlog numbers. There’s 10,000 claims and 70 percent are pending more than 125 days.”

Heller said VA officials have “given a lot of excuses why this hasn’t been fixed up to this point. Some are legitimate.”

He was referring to court cases and new laws that allow benefits for more maladies linked to exposure to Agent Orange herbicides for veterans of the Vietnam War.

“We’ve got a lot of hard-working people over there,” he said about the VA benefits office. “What we want to do is make their jobs easier.”

Casey said the working group will help their staffs work with other senators and also consult with veterans organization on how to be constructive in resolving the backlog problem.

“We still have a long way to go even though we see the VA reacting in a positive manner so far,” he said.

Heller said the VA Backlog Working Group will reach out to veterans organizations and lawmakers and issue recommendations in a final report in the fall. About 228,000 veterans live in Nevada.

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