WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials on Friday vowed to eliminate the backlog in veterans benefits claims by the end of 2015, ensuring that all those seeking payment from the department will have to wait no longer than three months.
The department’s current backlog, claims that have taken more than 125 days to process, sit around 250,000. John Gingrich, chief of staff for the department, said recent improvements in procedures and technology have made leaders there confident that they can steadily shrink that number over the next five years.
“We can break the back of the backlog,” he said. “We’re talking about making a huge leap forward, and we expect to see those improvements as early as 2011.”
The ambitious goal echoed VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s public comments to end homelessness among veterans by 2014. Officials say about 107,000 veterans are currently living on the streets, about a 20 percent drop from 2008 levels.
Gingrich said the new backlog goal is not only realistic but also necessary to keep the department’s promise to veterans. The average wait for benefits claims hovers at 165 days, and the department sees 100,000 new applications each month. That number is likely to rise in coming months.
Earlier this year the department loosened rules for veterans seeking compensation for illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure, and for post-traumatic stress disorder cases. And the number of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who will be applying for compensation for service-related illnesses is expected to balloon in the next decade.
The issue has become a major point of emphasis for veterans advocacy groups, who say the wait times and confusing rules of the claims process leave their members frustrated and financially strapped.
In recent years, officials have seen the number of veterans filing claims increase while the backlog has remained steady, a statistic Gingrich insists shows that officials are working toward shrinking the number of stalled applications. Michael Walcoff, deputy under secretary at the Veterans Benefits Administration, said recent improvements will also help speed the process dramatically.
For example, officials recently developed a new benefits calculator to help VA workers more easily calculate payouts for hearing deficiencies, a process that has allowed those claims to be processed more quickly and accurately. Walcoff said that same calculator is being expanded to cover nine other conditions in upcoming months.
The department is also looking to retain hundreds of part-time claims processors as full-time workers to help drive down the backlog. Recent improvements to online benefits applications and electronic medical records have sped up processing times for certain illnesses to fewer than 30 days.
The department’s budget has seen major increases in recent years, at just under $110 billion in fiscal 2010, more than double the total from a decade ago.