The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a backlog of about 300,000 new disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the head of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) said Tuesday.
"We've got to get this backlog down," VBA Chief Paul Lawrence said in an interview with Military.com. "We're really trying hard to figure this out."
By last November, the department had succeeded in processing clams at a high rate and brought the new claims backlog down to an all-time low of 64,000 cases, he said. In March 2013, the backlog of new disability claims at the VA had reached a peak of 611,000.
From January through the end of March this year, the number of backlogged claims increased slightly, to 70,000. Then, the spike began, as restrictions were imposed across the government in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, wiping out the progress the VA made last year in processing new claims, Lawrence said.
On April 1, the VA announced that "as concerns about COVID-19 infections increased and the president declared a national emergency, VA suspended its in-person medical disability examinations for its compensation and pension (C&P) programs."
The VA did not restart in-person exams until late August, and then only on a limited basis.
In addition, COVID-19 restrictions at the vast National Archives warehouse in St. Louis limited the VA's access to records needed to verify veterans' claims, Lawrence explained.
"That really set us back in terms of the ability to grant benefits," he said. "The two bits of information we need are the C&P exams and the personnel records."
To break the logjam, the VA began sending its own personnel to assist the National Archives.
"We actually have people in their warehouse in St. Louis [going through the files and] getting them scanned into our records," Lawrence said.
At one point, the VA had 48 of its own personnel working in the National Archives warehouse, he said.
Encouragingly, the increase in backlogged new cases appears to have leveled off in recent weeks, Lawrence added.
"We're processing at about the same rate we're receiving," he said. "Now, we're looking forward to the fall and beyond when we can drive it back down."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.