Last month, our country observed Memorial Day, a day when we take the time to remember the servicemembers who sacrificed their lives for our country. In remembering the servicemembers who paid the ultimate price for their nation, we should also express our gratitude by honoring the veterans with us today and making sure they have access to good-paying jobs and are receiving the veterans’ benefits they’ve earned.

Each year after the parades and remembrance services are over, we are faced with the sobering fact that far too many veterans return home to their communities and can’t access the benefits they’ve earned in a timely fashion. More veterans are contacting the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) to secure their benefits—since 2008, the department has seen a 48 percent increase in claims. Last year, the VA processed 1 million claims from our nation’s veterans, and 1.3 million new claims were submitted to VA. But too many of these claims, especially those from Ohio veterans, are backlogged.

Last week, I spoke with Charles Hooker, a veteran from Southwest Ohio. Today, Mr. Hooker, like many of Ohio’s nearly 850,000 veterans, receives earned benefits for the service and sacrifices he made to keep our country safe.  But after facing nearly five years of delays in dealing with the VA, Charles had to reach out to my office to cut through red tape.

Right now, the VA faces a staggering backlog of nearly 900,000 disability claims – including more than 25,000 backlogged claims from Ohio.

This means that veterans—many of whom are seeking assistance to deal with service-connected injuries—are left waiting. Whether it’s mental health services, assistance getting disability benefits, educational or employment support, too many veterans face excessive delays from the VA.

These delays are compounded by that the fact that too often veterans must wade through the VA application on their own.  Yet, help is often available in the communities where veterans live.

My new bill, the Veterans Services Outreach Act, would require the VA to notify veterans filing for claims electronically that there are those standing by who are ready to help.  Specifically, the bill would require the VA to provide information about important, time-saving assistance available from VA-approved organizations including Ohio’s county-based veterans’ service commissions and veterans’ service organizations (VSOs).

I’ve heard from many of these organizations – groups that have supported America’s veterans for decades – that the new electronic filing system does not inform applicants about their services, preventing veterans from getting all available help.

To eliminate some common problems that create the backlog, like erroneously completed forms or incomplete documentation, veterans and VSOs can work together to correct common mistakes.

It’s important that veterans get connected with these organizations early on in the process – because veterans organizations have decades of experience and can help streamline this process, cut down the backlog, and connect veterans with the support they need. These groups can provide invaluable service even beyond VA claims.  Many veterans do reach out to them—but often it is after they have already hit a hurdle at the VA.  

Veterans filing claims on their home computers may not know that VSOs and CVSOs are available to help.

Many other veterans relying on the Veterans Support Hotline at 1-800-827-1000 live in areas – especially rural, Appalachian communities – without immediate access to a VA center.

After hearing of wait times in excess of more than an hour, I asked members of my staff to call the Veterans Support Hotline. The wait times my staff experienced ranged from a minimum of 28 minutes to nearly an hour.

That’s unacceptable. Veterans should not have to wait to see a doctor, to get help with housing, or to have a claim processed.

Ohio veterans, like Charles, put their lives on hold to protect our country—so they shouldn’t be placed on hold when they try to access the resources they’ve fought to receive.

Our nation owes its freedom to people who answered the call of duty and risked their lives for their families, neighbors, and nation. 

Whenever they need assistance – be it for medical care as they age or a student loan as they enter the next phase of their lives – veterans deserve a system that works with, not against them. That’s what the Veterans Services Outreach Act would do—and if we really want to honor our women and men in uniform, we should work to turn this bill into law.