The number of backlogged veterans disability claims fell under 100,000 cases this weekend, a figure that officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs are hailing as proof that years of effort into modernizing their systems are paying dividends.
But VA officials Monday also indicated that they may never fully eliminate that backlog because doing so could unnecessarily rush some veterans' claims through the system.
About 98,500 of the almost 363,000 pending claims in the Veterans Benefits Administration now are backlogged, defined as pending for more than 125 days. VA officials six years ago set a self-imposed deadline of getting that total down to zero by the end of 2015.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey called the drop below 100,000 cases "an historic milestone" and a level of processing achievement "that we have never experienced before."
"Today is a new day for VA, and we are focused on delivering for our veterans ... like no time ever before," Hickey said.
The claims backlog became a national scandal for the department two years ago when it peaked at around 613,000 cases, despite years of promises from the White House and VA leaders that they were working on the overdue cases.
Outside advocates have offered cautious praise of the work so far, with veterans organizations lauding the effort but also warily reminding of past promises to end the backlog.
The progress also has drawn criticism from groups mistrustful of any VA data in the wake of its 2014 records manipulation scandals, and for a corresponding 27 percent increase in the total pending disability appeals cases in the last two years.
But Hickey said the appeals increase is due to an increase in the total number of cases, and VA workers are processing those at a faster rate than ever before as well.
For the last three years, about 10,000 VA employees who handle the disability claims have been required to work at least 20 hours of overtime each month, with some breaks over various holidays.
Hickey noted that advances in digital processing and efficiency have eliminated that need, while praising the processors for their sacrifice and hard work.
But she also dismissed the idea of ever fully eliminating the backlog, arguing that for about 11 percent of new cases to the department, the 125-day processing deadline may not be realistic.
For example, pregnant veterans who wish to wait for invasive medical tests may prolong the process, and veterans who add secondary conditions to claims late in an evaluation can add weeks or months to a completion date. In those cases, Hickey said, meeting the deadline would harm, not help, veterans.
At the current inventory level, that 11 percent would mean about 40,000 backlogged cases. But Hickey said that number will drop as the inventory continues to dwindle.
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.