By Jeremy Herb
That figure represented a 10,000 drop from the 421,793 backlogged claims in the VA’s Sept. 30 report, the day before the shutdown began. The backlog number dropped in each of the three weekly reports since then.
The disability claims backlog, which has been a frequent source of criticism after it ballooned to more than 600,000 this year, has been reduced by more than 30 percent from its peak of 611,000 in March.
“The momentum achieved over the past six months has now stalled with the government shutdown,” Shinseki said at an Oct. 9 hearing on the impact of the shutdown on the VA. He said the backlog had increased by 2,000 claims at that point due to the shutdown.
VA officials say that the shutdown did stall progress on the backlog, and production levels for claims processing dropped 25 percent during the shutdown. One VA official pointed to the numbers on the day the shutdown began and ended — 418,472 on Oct. 1 and 417,560 on Oct. 16 — to show that the progress had flat-lined.
“The hard work of [Veterans Benefits Administration] VBA employees kept the backlog from increasing significantly during the government shutdown,” the official said.
The 10,000 reductions in claims was in October was in fact off the pace established in the first three weeks of September, one of the VA’s best months, when the claims backlog dropped by 25,000.
The VA was able to avoid furloughing its workers who processed the claims during the shutdown, but it did have to stop its mandatory 20 hours of monthly overtime, which has been credited with helping make a dent in the claims backlog.
With the government back open, the mandatory overtime has been extended through at least Nov. 16.
In a statement after the government re-opened last week, Shinseki said the VA was still committed to its goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015.
“In the coming weeks and months, we will fight hard to regain ground lost as a result of the government shutdown,” he said.
House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Mike Michaud (D-Maine) said there was “no question” the shutdown had an impact on the VA’s ability to reduce the backlog.
“While the impact of the shutdown on the backlog doesn’t appear to be as severe as some had feared, at the very least, it’s comforting to know that the current strategy in place is enough to continue reductions, even without overtime,” Michaud said in a statement.