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The Veterans Affairs disability claims backlog has dropped by almost 25% in the last four months, indicating that hiring and overtime efforts are making a significant dent in the pending workload, department officials said.

As of June 21, the total number of backlogged files — claims that have been pending for more than four months — was at 187,540. The figure had been as low as 70,000 claims before the start of the American coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

Since then, partial closures of benefits offices slowed processing of the disability claims. At the same time, the volume of new claims (particularly ones in recent years tied to the expansion of illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War) increased, putting additional pressure on the system.

VA claims backlog improves, but still sits far above pre-pandemic levels

The backlog reached as high as 264,000 last October.

Last week’s totals are 29% lower than that mark. Despite the rapid progress, officials have said it may take until mid-2024 to get the figure below the 100,000 case level again.

VA officials credited new hirings and employee overtime with much of the recent improvement.

Last fall, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the Veterans Benefits Administration would hire and train 2,000 employees to assist with the increasing volume of disability benefits claims processing. As of last week, about 82% of those new workers have started working.

Officials said they have paid for about $100 million worth of overtime for existing employees through American Rescue Plan funds awarded by Congress in early 2021.

In a statement, department leaders also credited new automated claims processing systems with helping streamline the work, leading to additional decreases in the backlog.

“Through these efforts, the claims development and decision making portion of the claims process is more efficient and improves decision accuracy,” the statement said. “VBA continues to improve and expand this automated decision support process.”

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The claims backlog has been a source of frustration and concern in past years, particularly before the department’s processing systems were shifted to fully electronic files. It peaked in spring 2013 at more than 610,000 cases, prompting calls from lawmakers and advocates for wholesale changes in how the claims are handled.

From late 2015 to early 2020, the backlog hovered around 75,000 cases, a figure that department officials said was realistically the lowest level possible without forcing complex claims through the system too quickly, risking mistakes.

Reducing the caseload of overdue claims has been a priority for advocates as Congress considers sweeping toxic exposure legislation that could add hundreds of thousands of new claims to the benefits system, potentially driving the backlog even higher.