VA reduces disability claims backlog by 44 percent

Tuesday - 4/1/2014, 2:56pm EDT

The Veterans Affairs Department says it has cut the backlog of pending disability compensation claims by approximately 44 percent. On top of that, veterans are waiting an average of 119 days less for a decision than they were a year ago.

The backlog peaked in March 2013 with 611,000 disability claims, but VA cut that number down to 344,000 — a difference of more than 267,000 claims.

"No veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits," said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in a press release. "Through a combination of transformation initiatives and the hard work of our employees, we are making significant progress toward our goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015. We still have more work to do, and no one is more committed than our Veterans Benefits Administration employees, over half of whom are Veterans themselves."

The backlog is now at its lowest point since March 2011. At that time, the number of claims spiked in response to the VA having to readjudicate 150,000 cases involving veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a Vietnam-era defoliant.

Those claims, which had previously been decided, had to be readjudicated in the aftermath of the Nehmer court decision and the VA Secretary's decision to add Parkinson's disease, certain leukemias and ischemic heart disease to the list of diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure. VA also processed 100,000 new claims for these three conditions during the same time period.

"We knew taking care of this 'unfinished business' for veterans of previous wars would initially drive up the number of claims in our system," Shinseki said. "But it was the right thing to do."

In 2010, VA established a goal that all disability claims would be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy. The current accuracy rate is 91 percent, an 8 percent improvement over 2011.

"VA has also increased the productivity of its claims processing workforce through enhanced training, streamlined business processes and other initiatives such as mandating overtime and prioritizing the oldest claims, allowing VA's 56 regional benefits offices to exceed monthly production records four times in fiscal year 2013," the agency said, in a release.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, applauded the news about the reduced claims backlog.

"The VA has assured me that it is on track to eliminate by the end of next year what everyone agrees have been unacceptable delays in processing claims," Sanders said, in a release. "I welcome the progress that has been made and I intend to continue working with the VA to make sure that goal is achieved."

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