WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs claims processors will be required to work overtime this summer to help clear the problematic benefits backlog, department officials announced Wednesday.
Under the plan, all 10,000-plus VA employees who process disability claims will be required to work at least 20 hours overtime each month, between now and September 30.
Officials could not estimate how much the move will cost the department. In a statement, Secretary Eric Shinseki said the move “will provide more veterans with decisions on their claims, and will help us achieve our goal of eliminating the claims backlog.”
According to VA statistics this week, about 567,000 compensation pending claims are “backlogged” — unfinished after more than four months of processing. The average wait for a claim to be completed is almost nine months.
VA officials said they expect the mandatory overtime will have a “measurable impact” on the backlog by the end of the fiscal year. Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey called the move a surge in resources “to help those who have waited the longest.”
The department has come under fire in recent months from lawmakers and veterans advocates for slow progress on the claims processing problem. But officials have also received praise from veterans groups for their public plans to eliminate the backlog in 2015, and recent steps to achieve that goal.
Last month, the department announced it would begin issuing provisional decisions — partial, temporary compensation awards — for veterans who have been waiting more than a year to have their cases completed.
The department has also introduced a host of new processes, training and technology they insist will help clear the backlog over the next two years.
VA officials said the overtime work will also focus on quickly finishing high-priority claims, which include homeless applicants, terminally ill veterans, and former Prisoners of War.
The VA announcement amounts to about 12 extra days of work for claims employees between May and the end of September. On Tuesday, Defense Department officials announced plans to furlough most of their civilian employees for 11 days over the same period, to cover funding cuts mandated under sequestration.
VA programs and employees are exempt from the sequestration cuts.