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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, 5th from left, meets with reporters Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, to discuss progress made in clearing a backlog of disability claims.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, 5th from left, meets with reporters Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, to discuss progress made in clearing a backlog of disability claims. (Department of Veterans Affairs)

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki isn’t declaring victory in efforts to clear the disability claims backlog. After all, the department still has 400,000 cases overdue.

But claims workers have dropped the backlog by more than 200,000 cases — more than a third of the total — since March, and Shinseki said Thursday he’s confident the department is on the right track.

“We’ve done well,” Shinseki said. “This trend line is in the right direction. Now we’ve got to keep it going that way.

“I’m not dusting my hands off and saying this is a done deal.”

Shinseki’s comments came at a wide-ranging roundtable with reporters ahead of Veterans Day.

The backlog has been the department’s main focus and biggest headache for most of 2013, but the secretary is confident that the worst of the problem is over (barring more government shutdowns or fiscal fights, he noted).

About 32,000 veterans still have claims pending that have been pending for more than a year. But that’s down from almost 513,000 such cases seven months ago.

Shinseki said fiscal 2013 was the first time in five years that the department processed more cases than it received.

He credited the progress to the department’s new digital records system and “the hard work of our claims processors,” most of whom have been working 20 hours of mandatory overtime each month since May.

The department still plans to rely heavily on mandatory overtime by claims workers in coming months to address the problem, even though Shinseki acknowledged that’s not a long-term solution.

“You can ask too much,” he said. “(Overtime) is an excellent tool, and we’ll use it next year. But we’ll be sensitive to… a workforce that has already given a lot.”

The mandatory overtime will stop just before Thanksgiving and resume at the end of January. Shinseki noted that without those extra hours, the backlog progress could slow or stall, as officials said it did during the October government shutdown.

Shinseki sidestepped questions about congressional proposals to create an independent commission to find backlog solutions. “I never turn away any good idea” was the closest he came to supporting or opposing the pending legislation.

But he did acknowledge that although public attention has focused on the disability claims backlog, many veterans have raised concerns about the stagnant appeals process. Many of the 250,000-plus appeals cases linger for more than four years.

The secretary said the hiring of new attorneys and judges at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals should help with that issue, but VA officials are still pushing to speed up and more accurately process first-time claims because of the positive impact that will have on future appeals.

shane.leo@stripes.com Twitter: @LeoShane

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