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The Veterans Affairs Department is starting to sense victory in its long battle to eliminate the frustrating and nagging backlog of benefits claims.
In fiscal 2013, which ended Oct. 1, VA processed 1.17 million disability claims, a new record and a milestone because it marked the first time since 2008 that more claims were processed than received, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a Nov. 6 meeting with reporters.
An initiative focused on processing the oldest claims first also has been a success. As of Nov. 4, VA had completed 93.8 percent of initial claims older than one year. As a result, VA has decided 476,000 claims since April 19, with 65 percent to 70 percent of the veterans receiving disability pay.
“We have done well,” Shinseki said. “The trend is in the right direction.”
But he is not declaring victory just yet. “I am not dusting off my hands and saying this is a done deal,” he said.
However, VA is prepared to take a brief breather. Other than a 17-day break during the partial government shutdown in early October, VA claims workers have been required to work a minimum of 20 overtime hours a month. Mandatory overtime will continue through Nov. 23, Shinseki said, then will restart on Jan. 23.
“You cannot keep running that forever,” he said.
VA is not just getting faster on claims; it is also getting more accurate, Shinseki said. Since December 2012, the average three-month accuracy rate is 90 percent, an increase of 5 percentage points since 2011 and 7 points since 2010.
Shinseki described 2013 as a “crossover year” as VA makes a major push to increase the number of electronically filed claims and reduce the number filed on paper. “We have been sitting astride a river of paper for decades,” he said.
Shinseki acknowledged that many veterans may not personally feel the progress being made because those who appeal their initial claims decision can still face years-long waits for a final decision. Taming the appeals process “is the next area of focus,” he said.
About 4 percent of claims decisions are appealed, making for a sizable appeals backlog when more than 1 million claims are being decided. Delays in appeals decisions also can stretch out because the process is open-ended; a veteran can continue to press an appeal by supplying new information.
Some improvements in the appeals process are underway, Shinseki said, noting that the Board of Veterans Appeals has 15 new judges.
Some skepticism remains about VA’s progress. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee staff, for example, acknowledged that VA has reduced its claims backlog — measured by counting claims pending for longer than the VA’s 125-day processing goal — to slightly more than 400,000, but it did so while receiving about 300,000 fewer claims than expected and processing 100,000 fewer claims than it had hoped to.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman, said he wants to know why VA is “still falling short of its own backlog goals.
“Congress has provided VA with everything it has asked for to reduce the backlog, so why is the department not delivering the results its leaders promised?” Miller said in a statement.