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Veterans Affairs Department officials expected to see significant progress in the effort to reduce their disability claims backlog again this month.
Instead, it’s still stuck where it was last fall.
Veterans Benefits Administration officials on Monday announced the claims backlog — the number of cases pending for more than four months — rose by about 1,000 cases last week, to a total of just over 398,000.
The backlog has remained stalled at around 400,000 cases since early November, after a drop of more than 200,000 cases over the previous eight months.
Throughout the fall, VA officials credited new paperless processing and mandatory overtime by claims raters for the rapid drop. But they also warned the number could stagnate in November and December, as overtime was stopped for the holidays.
Overtime shifts for the raters resumed in January, but progress has not. The backlog has increased in four of the last 14 weeks — something that only happened twice in the previous six months — and still sits a few thousand cases above the 2013 low of just over 390,000.
In a statement, VA officials noted that the backlog total fluctuates week to week, but added: “We are confident in our plan and remain focused on eliminating the backlog in 2015, as planned.”
But lawmakers and outside advocates have questioned whether VA’s plans will allow it to reach that goal. Last week, researchers from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America issued a scathing report on the backlog, noting the stalled progress and expressing concerns that VA has not put in place solutions to address the flow of claims for the long term.
Jacqueline Maffucci, IAVA research director and the author of the report, said the stagn?ant progress “raises fresh questions about whether VA is on track.”
In Saturday’s weekly Republican address, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., senior Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called the claims backlog a “national embarrassment” and criticized VA for dragging its feet in fixing the problem.
VA and White House officials pledged five years ago to zero out the backlog by the end of 2015. President Obama mentioned the problem in his State of the Union address last month, promising to “keep slashing that backlog so our veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned.”