After a spike in backlog numbers in recent years, Veterans Affairs officials have seen a steady decrease in the number of overdue disability claims in their benefits system over the last five months, officials said this week.

But they still expect it will take a while before the case numbers return to pre-pandemic levels.

As of this week, the number of first-time claims that were considered backlogged — pending for more than four months — was about 244,000. That’s down about 8% from October 2021, when the figure reached about 264,000.

Veterans who file a disability claim can receive payouts backdated to their date of initial filing, meaning that the slower processing times do not technically cost veterans any of their disability payouts.

However, the backlog means more veterans are delayed in getting those payouts to start, in some cases leaving veterans’ finances in disarray for months longer than they anticipated.

The claims backlog became a national scandal in 2013 when the total reached more than 610,000 cases, as a flood of new claims related to new presumptive conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam overwhelmed the system.

In ensuing years, department officials digitized their records and claims system and hired more staffers to bring down those totals. As of early 2020, the backlog figure hovered around 70,000 cases.

But delays in medical exams and issues with accessing military medical records related to the coronavirus pandemic led to a significant increase in processing time for new claims. When additional Agent Orange presumptives and new burn pit illness claims were added last year, the backlog total grew even higher.

Department staffers have processed more than 760,000 cases since Oct. 1, the largest workload in VA history at this point in the fiscal year.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough called the figures encouraging but stopped short of celebrating the progress.

“We’re a little ahead of targets, but it’s hard to call any of this an improvement because we need to get this backlog down further,” he said.

Last fall, McDonough announced plans to hire about 2,000 more processors to help with the backlog problem. On Tuesday, he said about three-quarters of that total have been hired already.

Those workers have begun training that is expected to take several more months before they take on a full workload. VA officials have said it could take until 2024 before the backlog falls below 100,000 cases again.

However, that projection does not take into account any significant new increases in the claims filings. Several Republican lawmakers have voiced concerns about pending legislation to increase benefits for victims of military toxic exposure incidents, saying it could lead to a flood of new cases and even longer wait times.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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