For the first time since it began tracking the figure in 2009, the number of long-term outstanding disability claims at the Veterans Affairs Department has dipped below 100,000.
VA trimmed the claims backlog to 98,535 last week, the department announced on Monday, marking an 84 percent reduction from its 2013 peak. This is the first time in the recorded history of the statistic -- which defines a backlogged claim as one that is pending for more than 120 days -- that it has dipped below 100,000.
The backlog has long plagued VA and fueled criticism that the department was poorly managed and failed to meet the need of the veterans it served. The news comes as a rare positive development for a federal organization that has for years faced the scorn of lawmakers and the veterans community.
The department attributed the backlog reduction to a transformation plan it launched in 2011. The overhaul included a refocus on paperless claims processing, a more streamlined coordination of private medical records and specific metrics aimed at eliminating the backlog entirely by this year. The effort came as the volume of claims soared, with the Obama administration adding post-traumatic stress disorder and Agent Orange effects to the list of conditions making a veteran eligible for benefits.
“We streamlined our processes; we moved out of antiquated systems; we got away from thousands of tons of paper; we met you online so that you could access us wherever and whenever you needed,” Allison Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, wrote in a blog post Monday. She credited veterans for their flexibility in adapting to VA’s changes and the department’s workforce for its efforts.
In 2013, VA required about 15,000 claims processors to work 20 hours of overtime each month as part of its backlog reduction efforts. The requirement continued, on and off, through this year. Hickey announced VA will discontinue that mandate going forward.
She praised VA’s ability to reduce the backlog without affecting quality of service, noting employees are making the correct decision on claims “more than 98 percent of the time.” VA is on track to complete 1.4 million claims in fiscal 2015, marking the fifth consecutive year the number of claims processed has surpassed 1 million. The average time for a claim decision has been cut from its 2013 peak of 282 days to 105 days.
There are currently 363,799 disability claims still pending at VA.
“We are not done,” Hickey wrote. “We will continue to work tirelessly on your behalf.” She said VA will call on Congress to provide the resources and legislative authorities it needs to “build upon our improvements.”
While the news is certainly good for VA, it will likely do little do assuage the department's critics, who have accused department officials of manipulating statistics, most recently in connection to the average wait times of patients at VA hospitals.