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In an expanding effort to eliminate the benefits claims backlog, the Veterans Affairs Department announced Wednesday it is putting its claims processing staff on mandatory overtime through the end of the fiscal year.
The aim, VA officials said, is to reduce the pile of 878,000 pending claims, including 592,900 that are older than the agency’s 125-day processing goal.
The order applies to all 56 regional benefits offices, and extends through the end of September.
In a statement, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the “increased overtime initiative will provide more veterans with decisions on their claims and will help us achieve our goal of eliminating the claims backlog.”
Shinseki, himself a disabled veteran and former Army chief of staff, has pledged the backlog of claims — considered benefits claims that have not received an initial decision within 125 days — will be eliminated in 2015, although there are many doubters.
One of the VA’s toughest critics said the overtime announcement is a good step.“This is good to see, and we hope it helps reduce the backlog,” said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Rieckhoff is not convinced this step will lead to the elimination of the backlog, however. “Bringing the backlog down to zero will not be achieved piecemeal,” he said. “Instead of chipping away around the edges, veterans need a comprehensive strategy.”
The overtime announcement comes after the VA’s April 19 announcement that it was making it a priority to process claims of veterans who have been waiting the longest. This is being done by assigning a provisional rating to claims that are at least a year old if there is enough information in a file to make a decision. This effort is designed to reduce the claims backlog by about 250,000 cases within six months, although it is unclear whether this process might lead to more appeals of decisions that could further clog the VA claims system.
Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, said the agency is “committed to getting veterans decisions on their claims as quickly and accurately as possible.” Mandatory overtime appears aimed at meeting the six-month goal for the oldest claims. “We need the surge to help those who have waited the longest and end the backlog,” Hickey said.