The Department of Veterans Affairs anticipates that its claims backlog, defined as those older than 125 days, will grow "potentially up to 400,000" in the next year, largely the result of the PACT Act.
The agency is now facing a delicate balancing act to process an increase of disability claims under the toxic exposure legislation passed last year, as it seeks to avoid worker burnout even as its backlog is expected to double in the coming year.
VA Undersecretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs said Monday that more than 560,000 disability compensation claims have been filed since last year under the PACT Act, the landmark legislation that broadened benefits eligibility for post-9/11 veterans and former service members from other eras sickened by exposure to environmental pollution.
To handle the influx, the VA has increased its Veterans Benefits Administration workforce by 15%, hiring thousands of workers to facilitate and process claims.
According to Jacobs, the VA has received 30% more claims as a result of the legislation and expects more as the department continues outreach on eligibility, but it has taken steps to address the coming load and aims to reduce the backlog to 100,000 in 2025.
"That's all dependent on a variety of factors … on how many veterans file claims … the complexity and the number of conditions within each of those claims … our continued hiring success and a variety of other factors, to include our adoption of technology," Jacobs said.
He added that the VA is currently processing at a rate better than the projections.
The department currently has a load of 818,000 disability claims. In fiscal 2022, it delivered a record 1.7 million decisions, up 12% from the previous year, and this year to date has rendered 15% more decisions than at the same time last year, according to Jacobs.
"We've produced more decisions than any other time in our history," Jacobs said in a media roundtable with reporters.
To keep up with the workload and address a backlog of more than 100,000 claims at the time, the department in 2017 instituted mandatory overtime, up to 20 hours a month. The number rose during the pandemic as the department faced worker shortages and departures, rising to more than 250,000 before the VA launched an effort to hire and quickly onboard more than 2,000 workers.
The backlog dipped in mid-2022 but is on the rise again as adjusters are handling new PACT Act claims.
Jacobs said last week that the VA plans to suspend mandatory overtime in July and August to accommodate vacation plans and reduce staff burnout. The move is likely to result in a slowdown on claims decisions, but the department must "take care of employees so that they can take care of veterans."
In addition to the overtime pause, the VA improved a number of its claims processes and expanded an automated processing system to 16 regional offices that review claims for a number of easily adjudicated conditions -- a move that will lessen the load on staff, Jacobs said.
"As we work to verify, validate and graduate our automated decision support, we do anticipate some efficiency gains there as well, so collectively, we don't have to hire up as quickly as we have and ... can also move away from reliance on mandatory overtime," Jacobs said.
As of May 12, the VA had decided roughly 252,000 of the 546,000 PACT Act claims filed by veterans, with nearly 80% of decisions resulting in an approval for one or more conditions.
VA officials said that 14,000 survivors of veterans who otherwise may have been eligible for disability compensation under the PACT Act have filed claims as well; the department has reviewed roughly 6,000 of those, resulting in disability compensation and other benefits to 3,600 survivors.
The department is encouraging veterans who believe they may have a condition related to overseas exposure to burn pits, Agent Orange, radiation or other substances noted in the PACT Act to file a claim by Aug. 9, so their disability compensation can be backdated to Aug. 10, 2022, when the legislation was signed.
They may file a claim after Aug. 9, but compensation, if approved, will be dated to their date of filing after Aug. 9.
Jacobs said he wants eligible veterans to know that they will be able to file claims under the PACT Act at any time should they develop an illness listed in the legislation or determined to be associated with toxic exposures.
"What we're just trying to do is make sure as many veterans [as possible] know about this," he said.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime