Despite the government shutdown, the Veterans Affairs Department continues to cut its backlog of benefits claims.
As of Oct. 28, VA reported it had 711,775 claims on hand, down more than 191,000 from the end of March.
The backlog, defined by VA as applications that have been awaiting an initial decision for more than 125 days, totals 405,656, a drop of almost 227,000 claims since March.
Those gains result from a combination of changes in claims processing, encouragement for veterans to file fully developed claims electronically, and ordering mandatory overtime for claims processors as part of an initiative to tackle the oldest claims first.
Overtime came to a halt during the 17-day government shutdown, leading VA officials to warn that the disruption might hinder efforts to achieve their 2015 goal of completely eliminating the backlog of claims older than 125 days.
However, the backlog unexpectedly dropped by more than 10,000 claims during the shutdown. Just prior to the Oct. 1 shutdown, about 725,400 claims were pending, including 421,793 older than 125 days. As of Oct. 19, two days after government funding was restored, VA had slightly more than 717,000 pending claims, 411,700 of them older than 125 days.
Mandatory overtime of 20 hours a month for claims workers was reinstated when the partial shutdown ended, but that is expected to expire on Nov. 15. Voluntary overtime could continue through the end of the year.
During the shutdown, VA claims workers stayed on the job although about 7,000 people in the Veterans Benefits Administration were furloughed for at least part of the period and regional offices were closed — actions that could have slightly decreased the number of claims filed.
On Monday, the House of Representatives passed a bill to create a new task force to consider ways to reduce the claims backlog, something Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said is needed to ensure the 2015 goal for eliminating the backlog is met.
“Even though VA has made recent progress, it is still well short of its own goals,” Miller said. “We must not take our foot off the gas.”