Tactical

VA staff are completing more claims than ever but still falling behind

Veterans Affairs benefits processors are on pace to shatter last year’s workload levels, but that still might not be enough to make significant progress on the overdue claims backlog until next year.

In fiscal 2023, department benefits officials completed nearly 2 million veteran and survivor claims, the most in agency history and up almost 16% from the previous year. During a press call Wednesday, VA Undersecretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs said through the first three months of fiscal 2024, his staffers are 34% ahead of last year’s pace.

“A key goal for this year is to break last year’s record, and we are on track to do just that for veterans,” he said. “We’re not letting up.”

Jacobs said that prior to Oct. 1, VA benefits employees had processed more than 9,000 claims in a day only three times. Since that date, they’ve surpassed that mark 37 times.

Much of the new success has to do with hiring. Jacobs said that the VA claims workforce is roughly 20% larger than it was in fall 2022, at about 32,000 employees. Officials have set a hiring goal of 4,000 more (12.5%) for the current fiscal year.

“We had a massive hiring effort last year that involved both our human resources functions and also our leadership teams across the country,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot and we are leveraging those lessons to continue improving the way that we do our vetting and our screening and hiring and onboarding and training.”

Despite those successes, however, the total number of backlogged first-time benefits claims in the system — cases that have taken more than four months to complete — earlier this month topped 400,000, the highest that figure has been since June 2014.

That total had been down to around 70,000 cases for several years before the COVID-19 pandemic began in spring 2020.

Disruptions in office work during the pandemic, combined with hundreds of thousands of new cases filed in the wake of the PACT Act passage in 2022, have resulted in a steady rise over the last 16 months. The total caseload in fiscal 2023 was nearly 40% higher than the previous year, meaning the record processing work wasn’t enough to keep up.

Jacobs said he expects the backlog to stabilize in coming months and fall back down to pre-pandemic levels in 2025. Officials expect to release specific projection targets in coming weeks.

The undersecretary also acknowledged that impressive performance statistics are little comfort to veterans who are frustrated waiting for their claims to be finalized.

“We cannot and we will not lose sight of the fact that behind each of these claims is an individual veteran, a family member or a survivor, not a number,” he said. “We’re very mindful that the Veterans Benefits Administration is the first VA touch point for many veterans, which is why we’re also working to build an integrated customer experience for veterans and their families.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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