WASHINGTON — A pair of U.S. senators is hoping a new bipartisan working group focused on the veterans benefits backlog can speed solutions to the persistent problem.

Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., said the new effort will include meetings with veterans advocates, benefits recipients, VA officials and a host of lawmakers, with the goal of creating some new ideas or recommendations by this fall.

Both men expressed frustration at the lengthy wait many veterans face when applying for service-connected benefits. As of this week, nearly 502,000 veterans have been waiting four months or more for their claims to be processed.

“We’ve been given excuses for years on why this isn’t fixed,” Heller told reporters Thursday. “Some of them are legitimate … But we’re trying to move the process forward and find answers.”

The working group is the latest attempt to address the problem outside the traditional veterans-themed congressional committees. Earlier this year, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee said they’d closely monitor progress on the topic. Veterans groups have made it their top lobbying priority this year.

VA officials have promised to end the backlog in the next two years, through a series of new computer systems, better processing procedures and additional manpower.

In the last three months, the backlog figure has dropped by more than 100,000 files, which officials say shows their plan is working.

But Casey said he worries the department still isn’t on pace to solve the problem in 2015, and believes a broader discussion is needed to keep all parties focused on the issue. Earlier this year, Casey and Heller authored a letter signed by 65 other senators urging more action from VA and White House officials on the backlog.

Rich Dumancas, deputy director for benefits at the American Legion, said his group is pleased with the progress so far by the VA, but also welcomes the additional attention.

“We see the value in the steps they’ve taken already,” he said. “So we’ll be talking about that, and seeing how we can build from there.”

In a statement, Disabled American Veterans Executive Director Barry Jesinoski called the working group “another Congressional forum to help build support for serious, long-term solutions to ensure that all veterans’ claims for benefits are decided right the first time.”

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Legislative Director Alex Nicholson said the continued focus is needed because "we have much more work to do on their behalf to bring the VA disability claims backlog to zero.” Twitter: @LeoShane

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