The Department of Veterans Affairs has cut its backlog of pending benefits claims by 44 percent since saying in March 2013 that its caseload had reached a “tipping point.”
The latest VA data, released Monday, shows that the number of claims stuck in the processing system for more than 125 days had dropped to 344,000, compared to a high of about 611,000 a year ago.
The department said in a statement on Monday that it also improved the accuracy of its determinations from 83 percent in 2011 to 91 percent last month and shortened the average wait time for decisions from 282 days to 119 days since March 2013.
“No veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said, adding that “we still have more work to do.”
Veterans groups have challenged the VA’s accuracy claims in recent months. American Legion official Zachary Hearn said during a congressional hearing in December that his organization found errors with 55 percent of the cases it had reviewed.
Hearn said in an interview on Monday that the VA has “greatly reduced the claims backlog, but we still have our concerns with accuracy and the rapid manner in which they are adjudicated.”
The number of backlogged cases — those that have reached the 125-day threshold — skyrocketed during the Obama administration, largely due to new rules that allowed more Agent Orange claims to be filed and an influx of claims from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The administration set a goal last year of eliminating the backlog by 2015, tackling the issue by implementing an overtime “surge,” prioritizing the oldest claims and training more employees to handle processing duties.
But as the VA trimmed the number of longstanding claims, a new issue began to emerge. The volume of appeals cases has grown by 50 percent to more than 250,000 since Obama took office, and the Board of Veterans Appeals has said the amount could double before 2018.
President Obama vowed in his 2014 State of the Union address to continue the recent progress on trimming the overall backlog. His 2015 budget proposal requests $138.7 million for a “Veterans Claims Intake Program” to reform and speed up processing.
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