WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday its disability claims backlog has fallen below 100,000 for the first time after reaching an historic high two years ago.
The backlog includes the oldest unresolved claims – those that are 125 days old or older – and stood at 98,535 this week. That is a reduction of 84 percent since 2013, according to the department.
The VA has struggled in recent years to handle a massive influx of claims from aging Vietnam vets and those who returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Congress and veteran service organizations have criticized the backlog for keeping benefits from servicemembers with severe service-connected disabilities for months or sometimes longer.
“We’ve done something today that we have never done in our history before,” Allison Hickey, the VA undersecretary for benefits, told reporters.
The VA created a strategic plan to reduce a backlog of over 600,000 old claims in 2013 that included digitizing the filing process and requiring mandatory overtime for employees.
Hickey attributed most of the reduction to staff, saying she “would point without hesitation or pause to people.” But she also acknowledged that the required overtime work is not sustainable for VA and will end after September.
The backlog is a fraction of overall pending disability and pension claims, which have decreased to about 363,000 from 884,000 three years ago, according to data published by the VA.
But what was touted by Hickey on Monday as an “historic moment” was greeted by some frustration from the VFW, the nation’s largest service organization for war veterans.
The Veterans Benefits Administration, the section of VA tasked with the claims, accomplished the dramatic reduction by focusing in on one small section of its responsibilities, said Gerald Manar, deputy director of National Veterans Service at the VFW.
“All they’ve talked about is reducing that part of the workload and that part of the backlog,” Manar said. “They’ve done that, at least in part, at the expense of other work.”
Manar said claim appeals and decisions on benefits for dependent spouses and children often languish as well but have been pushed aside by the department as it whittles away at the oldest disability claims.
The number of appeals by veterans asking for reconsideration of a claims decision increased to 298,000 in July from 239,000 two years ago, according to figures provided Monday by the VA. But the department said the percentage of appeals have remained relatively static for decades and are only rising now due to more overall claims.
“I think a big part of it is the visibility of disability claims,” Manar said.
In a report released in May, the Senate’s VA backlog working group said the delays are breaking a vow to treat those wounded in service and said in one case, a Marine who lost an eye and use of an arm and leg from an improvised explosive device had to wait more than 18 months for VA compensation.