Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies Oct. 9 before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. About 3.8 million veterans will not receive disability compensation next month if the partial government shutdown continues into late October, Shinseki told lawmakers. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Progress on reducing the veterans’ claims backlog has ground to a halt as a result of the partial government backlog that began Oct. 1 — and things could get far worse.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, testifying Oct. 9 before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the backlog now stands at about 400,000 claims after a dramatic 30 percent drop since March. But, since the partial government shutdown on Oct 1, the backlog had climbed by about 2,000 in and would continue increasing unless full funding was provided to his department.
“The shutdown directly threatens VA’s ability to eliminate the backlog,” he said. “We have lost ground we fought hard to take.”
About 1,400 fewer claims are being processed each day because mandatory overtime for claims was halted, he said.
“We are no longer making the significant gains,” he said.
Claims processing will be suspended if the lapse in funding continues through late October, he said, delaying decisions on an average of 5,600 claims a day for each day the shutdown drags on.
Just funding VA doesn’t fix the entire problem, Shinseki said, because VA depends on information from the Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service to complete some claims where income is an issue.
An extended shutdown could jeopardize the Obama administration’s plan to eliminate the claims backlog by the end of calendar year 2015, an effort that requires a combination of extra hours for claims processors, improvements in the claims process and a substantial shift toward having fully electronic claims.
Earlier this year, VA had intended to end on Oct. 1 the mandatory overtime requiring 20 hours extra work a month. Before the government shutdown, VA’s plans changed. It wanted to continue mandatory overtime through Nov. 16 and to encourage voluntary overtime through the end of the calendar year, said Victoria Dillon, a VA spokeswoman.
A slowdown in claims processing is a concern for veterans. “In recent months, we have seen a significant and laudable reduction in the backlog,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said in a statement. “If the shutdown continues, we may not only see a slowdown of this trend but a potential reversal of the trend. This would represent a major setback for the VA, for veterans and for the country.”