A backlog of about 350,000 disability claims doesn’t sound like good news.
But Veterans Affairs Department officials argue it represents a pair of important and positive milestones.
The backlog — the number of disability claims pending for more than 125 days — dropped below that 350,000 mark this week for the first time since February 2011. It marks a decrease of more than a quarter-million cases in the past year, a pace officials believe they can maintain to zero out the backlog in 2015.
And it marks the first time the backlog has been below 350,000 since before claims tied to new presumptive illnesses from Agent Orange exposure overwhelmed the benefits system.
The move in 2010 to make the new presumptive illnesses eligible for VA benefits — adding tens of thousands of new cases to the already overworked claims processing system — was popular with veterans advocacy groups, who called the move a long-overdue recognition of the struggles of Vietnam veterans.
But it also led to a dramatic slowdown in disability claims being completed, which in turn led to intense scrutiny and criticism of VA’s ability to deal with claims quickly and reliably.
That scrutiny continued last week, when VA officials appeared on Capitol Hill to testify about their annual budget request. In a series of hearings, House and Senate lawmakers promised to keep pressure on the department to more quickly process claims, saying the backlog is far from a solved problem.
But VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey on Monday called the dwindling backlog figure a significant step ahead. Officials aren’t celebrating the end of the backlog yet, but they are confident they have put in place new technology and processing systems to ensure a similar backlog fiasco won’t happen again.
“We don’t ever want to see a secretary not do what’s right for veterans because he’s worried about what the backlog may do,” she said.
Hickey said new paperless systems, better training of claims workers and improved communication systems not only have helped pare down the backlog but also have set up a system in which similar lengthy slowdowns should not happen again.
She also acknowledged that mandatory overtime for claims processors over the last two years has been a needed tool in driving down the numbers. New automated systems and improved paperless technology should replace those extra hours in the future, she said, noting that constant overtime is not a sustainable business model.
But lawmakers are not convinced those changes will be enough. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, last week said members of the House Appropriations Committee are “deeply concerned” with the ongoing problem and will be introducing new legislation to ensure the backlog continues to drop.
A bipartisan group of senators already has offered a similar bill in that chamber, mandating more inter-agency coordination and communication with veterans on outstanding claims.
Hickey said she understands lawmakers’ frustration and oversight, but also disagreed with the idea that the backlog problem is still insurmountable. VA officials maintain they are on track to zero out the backlog sometime in late 2015, as they and White House officials have promised.
“Every state office I look at, I see the backlog going down,” she said. “I know veterans are getting better and faster service.”