Department officials are also planning to use mandatory overtime for thousands of already-working claims staff and emergency coronavirus pandemic funding to help stem the problem.
Even with that, Veterans Benefits Administration officials expect it to take two and a half years to bring the backlog back down to pre-pandemic levels. But they also are insisting veterans waiting on their claims to be processed should not panic.
“We don’t want people to worry when they see that number,” said Mike Frueh, VA’s Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits. “We want veterans to keep filing their claims.”
As of the end of September, the claims backlog — the number of cases that have been pending for more than four months — was at 208,000. That’s almost triple the typical monthly backlog total from before the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.
Officials said officer closures caused by the pandemic steadily drove up the backlog total for much of last year. The problem was further exacerbated by several court decisions and new laws mandating additional benefits for troops exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which added to the total volume of cases being added to the VA system.
That’s also why VA officials know another backlog spike is coming.
About 70,000 claims related to new benefits rules for Parkinsonism, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism linked to poisoning from the chemical defoliant are due to hit the four-month mark at the end of October. Frueh said officials estimate the backlog will reach more than 260,000 then.
But Frueh said officials are processing cases at a record rate, and do not expect the backlog to reach the same challenges as in 2013, when an influx of new benefits swelled the total to more than 600,000. Thousands of those cases lingered in the VA system for years without resolution.
Officials don’t expect the same difficulties this time, although Frueh acknowledged it will likely take until early 2024 to fully return to pre-pandemic levels.
“We are the front door to VA benefits and services,” he said. “This is a natural consequence of people filing more claims.”
The department processed more than 1.5 million claims in fiscal 2021, the most ever. But they also received about 1.7 million claims, and expect the number to rise even higher with the recent benefits changes.
The short-term hiring of 2,000 new claims workers — the largest such effort by the department ever — will provide long-term relief to the claims processing problems. However, it will take months before those staff are fully trained and able to handle standard workload amounts.
Since May, the benefits administration required 20 hours of mandatory overtime a month to deal with the backlog spikes. Those requirements will continue for the foreseeable future, Frueh said.
In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department remains “committed to ensuring timely access to benefits and services for all veterans.”
More information on the backlog is available on the VA web site.