This story has been updated.
A Veterans Affairs Department push to eliminate the oldest disability claims in its backlog has paid off, the department announced Thursday.
VA said that in two months, it has processed 97 percent of disability claims backlogged more than two years. This translates to eliminating 65,000 claims from its overall inventory, which totaled 840,898 as of Monday.
The VA embarked on a crash project in April to give priority to its oldest claims, and said it would make provisional decisions that would allow veterans to begin collecting compensation benefits more quickly, if eligible. After that provisional decision, veterans would be able to submit additional evidence on their claims for up to a year before a final decision would be made.
When officials decided to expedite processing of the department's oldest claims, VA warned this would temporarily result in a significant increase in the average wait time to complete work on a claim, which is 286 days. VA reported Monday it had 554,105 claims backlogged more than 125 days.
“We’ve made great progress, but know much works remains to be done to eliminate the backlog in 2015,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said.
Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey credited mandatory overtime instituted for claims processors in April for helping whittle down the backlog of the oldest claims. The overtime policy will run through September.
VA officials said the department will now focus on processing claims more than a year old. This move could eventually result in a pile up of the newest claims, said Gerald Manar, deputy director for national veteran service at Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Manar said VA has 194,000 claims over a year old, and he estimated it would take the department eight months to process them. If a veteran filed a new claim before April, this means that claim would not be looked at until close to the end of the year. As those claims sat unprocessed in VA regional offices, they would accumulate paper as veterans filed supporting documentation, making them look more complex, Manar said.
VA needs to focus on all claims, not just the oldest or the easiest to process, Manar said. He added VA also needs to pay as much attention to the quality of its claims ratings -- which can be challenged, delaying the process – as it does to the quantity.
Army veteran Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in an emailed statement, “It's great that in response to a national outcry the VA took aggressive and smart actions to answer the call for almost all veterans who have been waiting for longer than two years for decisions.”
He also agreed with Manar that the quality of the claims decisions is paramount. Referring to the oldest claims VA just processed, Rieckhoff said, “What we still need from VA is data on the claims themselves, including how many are provisional, how many are permanent, and how accurate are the ratings themselves.”
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was similarly skeptical. “Any progress toward eliminating the backlog is welcome news,” he said. But “one can’t help but question how the department was able to process most of its two-year-old claims in just 60 days. If two months was all VA needed to adjudicate these claims, why did the department let them sit for two years or longer? “
He also questioned what would happen once mandatory overtime ended. “Nevertheless, when it comes to evaluating VA’s success in combatting the backlog, the two most important numbers are zero and 2015,” he said. “In other words, this problem won’t be solved unless the backlog is at zero by 2015, just as VA leaders have promised.”