Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki visits a Texas regional office to talk to staffers about processing claims on Aug. 27, 2013.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki visits a Texas regional office to talk to staffers about processing claims on Aug. 27, 2013. (Brian Gavin/VA)

WASHINGTON — The veterans claims backlog continued to drop this month despite the two-week government shutdown and dire claims from Veterans Affairs leaders that momentum on the problem had been lost.

VA officials reported Monday that 411,704 compensation claims have been pending for more than 125 days, the 15th consecutive week the official backlog number has decreased. The figure is down about 10,000 cases since Sept. 28.

But the decrease appears to contradict VA claims that the government shutdown would hurt efforts to clear the backlog, by depriving the department of funds for mandatory overtime to work on the problem.

On Oct. 1 — the first day of the budget impasse — VA assistant secretary of Public Affairs Tommy Sowers predicted an increase in the number of overdue claims because of the shutdown.

A week later, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that “the momentum achieved in the past six months (on the backlog) has now stalled with the government shutdown.” He also indicated that the department’s stated goal of zeroing out the backlog in 2015 could be jeopardized by the shutdown.

In an email, VA officials acknowledged that the backlog did not increase during the shutdown but insisted that it did remain flat during the days department funding was restricted. That ignores a Oct. 14 report putting the backlog about 6,000 cases lower than where Shinseki had indicated just a few days earlier.

The department attributes the 10,000-case drop from Sept. 28 to Oct. 19 to the five non-shutdown days included in that reporting period, and the “hard work of our Veterans Benefit Administration employees” despite the distraction.

Republicans in Congress have accused the White House of exaggerating the effects of the shutdown and creating unnecessary hardships to make the budget fight more painful. That included decisions to close national parks and furlough thousands of government employees.

VA programs were somewhat insulated from the shutdown, because of millions in advance funding appropriated to the department. That kept veterans hospitals and care centers open and most department employees on the job, but did affect non-essential programs such as the overtime claims work.

Since March, veterans claims processors have trimmed the backlog total by an average of 31,000 a month. It is unclear whether the slower progress over the last three weeks will prevent similar progress by the end of the month.

In a statement, House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he was pleased with the latest numbers.

“It's great to see that the government shutdown didn't stop VA's backlog progress,” he said. “If VA's claims processing overtime program, which is now set to resume, is as crucial to success as department leaders claim it is, we expect the backlog to shrink considerably more in the coming weeks."

Ranking member Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said there is “no question the shutdown had an impact on the VA and its ability to keep pace with the previous reductions” in the backlog.

“While the impact of the shutdown on the backlog doesn’t appear to be as severe as some had feared, at the very least, it’s comforting to know that the current strategy in place is enough to continue reductions, even without overtime,” he said in a statement.

Shortly after the shutdown’s end, VA officials announced they would resume mandatory overtime for all VA claims processors, requiring about 20 hours of extra work before the end of November.

The department also plans to reinstate mandatory overtime again next spring, an indication that they believe they’ll need the extra effort to keep the backlog trend headed downward. Twitter: @LeoShane

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