The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo.

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

The U.S. Veterans Affairs Department plans to hire 2,000 new workers starting this month to deal with an expected increase in backlogged claims which have tripled since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic last year, VA officials announced Wednesday.

VA officials hope the new hires will help them slow the backlog which they expected to grow from about 204,000 overdue claims at the end of September to some 260,000 by the end of October, according to a VA statement. In addition to adding claims processors, the VA intends to mandate overtime work for its current processors to cut into its backlog, which it intends to pay for with emergency pandemic funding.

The backlog has grown from about 64,000 overdue claims before the coronavirus swept across the United States last year, as pandemic-mitigation efforts forced the VA to halt exams to evaluate disabilities known as compensation and pension examinations and slowed the Federal Records Centers’ ability to provide documents. The VA considers backlogged claims for benefits to be those that take longer than 125 days to approve or deny.

“VA is committed to ensuring timely access to benefits and services for all Veterans. This includes making sure Veterans who may have experienced adverse health effects from military related exposures can get access to the benefits they need,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “The hiring of new employees will help us resolve these claims more quickly.”

The VA said the backlog has also been driven by recent court and Capitol Hill decisions granting new benefits to some Vietnam veterans who believe they were exposed to Agent Orange during the war in that country.

So-called “Blue Water” Navy veterans, who served on ships within 12 miles of Vietnam’s shores, were granted a review of their claims last year. And, VA identified 70,000 claims it must review for new benefits granted by Congress citing a link between Agent Orange with Parkinsonism, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism.

Despite the expected increase in claims this month, the VA said it has decreased its backlog by about 14,000 claims since the end of August.

With the planned new hires and overtime authorizations, the VA expects to cut its backlogged claims to about 100,000 by April 2024, it said Wednesday.

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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