WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials say they’re poised to make a major breakthrough on the department’s massive claims backlog, but skeptical lawmakers and veterans advocates say they’ve heard such proclamations before.

VA officials announced Tuesday that they have all but wrapped up work on Agent Orange disability claims that overwhelmed the processing system over the last two years. Nearly 230,000 of those cases have been reviewed and finalized, and officials said fewer than 500 open cases remain.

The VA had set aside 37 percent of the department’s rating staff and 13 resource centers to deal solely with the Agent Orange cases. With the work finished, officials said, those centers and about 1,200 claims processors will begin dealing with the overall disability and pensions backlog.

More than 911,000 claims remain unprocessed, down from more than 1.4 million last year but still up 60 percent from when the Agent Orange claims push started two years ago. About two-thirds of those cases have been pending for more than 125 days, despite department promises to deal with them quickly.

Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called that embarrassing.

“VA continues to struggle with unconscionable backlogs and unacceptable delays in getting our nation’s veterans the benefits they need,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla. “It is time for VA to break this cycle of unproductivity and deliver the benefits that the agency was created to provide.”

Veterans advocates pointed to continuing problems with how old paper records are scanned and saved, as well as problems with claims processed inaccurately on their first submission.

“We’ve heard time and time again that this is the year they’ll break the backlog,” said Richard Dumancas, deputy director for claims at the American Legion. “We want to be optimistic … but it’s hard to find optimism when so many red flags pop up.”

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has publicly called for the claims backlog to be eliminated in the next three years. Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits at the department, said new initiatives on the way coupled with the reassignment of those claims adjusters will help the agency reach that goal, while also improving case accuracy.

But Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., said he believes the system as currently designed is hopeless. He called for a process similar to how tax returns are processed, where all disability and pension claims are assumed to be true but subject to audit.

That proposal has drawn little support from the VA and veterans service organizations. Filner chastised both on Tuesday for propping up a broken system.

“This is disgraceful and an insult to our veterans,” he said. “Somebody has to take responsibility for this and try something new.”

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane

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