The Veterans Affairs Department's backlog of disability claims will finish 2015 near its lowest level in six years, but still will not come close to the publicly promised goal of zero.
VA officials this week said the backlog sits at just under 75,000 cases, down by nearly half from when the department began publicly tracking the figure in 2009, and down by 88 percent from its peak of nearly 612,000 cases in the spring of 2013.
It's a remarkable turnaround for an agency that in the early part of this decade routinely took ridicule from critics for the ever-growing backlog totals, and saw the overall number of claims spike as it worked to make internal improvements.
Since 2012, more than 940,000 new veterans have been added to VA's compensation lists.
But for years, White House and VA leaders have publicly targeted 2015 as the year they would eliminate the backlog, comprised of first-time claims pending for more than four months.
And that goal may never be reached.
In a statement this week, VA officials said some claims will always require more than 125 days to process, "for a number of complex reasons." Those include shifting schedules for medical exams, additional entitlement issues, and discovery of new evidence during processing that can bolster a veteran's case.
"VA's legal duty to assist veterans in fully developing their claims is an obligation we take seriously and will not rush," the statement said. "VA employees are dedicated to getting veterans the benefits they have earned as quickly and accurately as possible."
Veterans Benefits Administration officials have estimated that about 10 percent of new claims coming into the system may fall into those categories. With the current inventory, that translates into a rolling list of about 40,000 backlogged claims.
The department has cleared more than 530,000 overdue claims from its caseload in about 2.5 years, thanks to a series of process updates, computer upgrades and years of mandatory overtime for claims workers.
Those changes include moving VA from a largely paper-based processing system to a completely digital one, enabling faster sharing of medical records and military service information.
That process wasn't fully engaged until 2013, after the backlog had quadrupled from its fall 2009 totals. A combination of newly returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and decisions to expand the number of Vietnam-era service-connected illnesses led to a dramatic spike in the caseload, and to frustration over the slow pace of change.
In response, VA leaders required its claims processors to work 20 hours of overtime each month nearly continuously since the start of 2013, and for isolated periods in the two years prior.
The move added hundreds of days of extra processing time, but has worn on employees tasked with the work. Department leaders have said they hope to end the mandatory OT in the coming year.
Progress on clearing the backlog has been largely stagnant since October, when the total dipped below 75,000 cases for the first time. But the processing numbers often stall near the end of the year as holiday breaks and unused vacation time stacks up, and in past years significant backlog reduction has resumed in late January.
Outside critics also have expressed concern that the effort to clear the delayed first-time claims has led to an increase in the backlog of appeals on claims, where cases routinely languish for three years or more.
The appeals caseload has risen by about 75,000 since spring 2013, to just over 325,000 pending cases today.
But VA officials insist the percentage of total claims that wind up in appeals has remained steady in recent years, and the recent rise is connected to the greater number of claims being filed by veterans, not problems with processing first-time cases.
Department leaders have promised to address the appeals problems in coming years, while also remaining focused on the first-time claims delays.
"While complete elimination of the backlog may not be achievable under our current processing systems and procedures, we know there is still more that we can do," they said in their statement.
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.