Despite the furlough of 7,800 agency employees and dire warnings from agency administrators, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reduced its long backlog of claims during this month’s government shutdown.
The agency’s Veterans Benefits Administration’s weekly workload reports, reviewed by the News4 I-Team, show sizable reductions in the number of veterans’ benefits claims pending for longer than 125 days.
An agency spokeswoman confirmed the backlog dropped by approximately 900 cases between Oct. 1, and Oct. 16.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, in testimony before Congress Oct. 9, said the agency was forced to cut overtime pay for claims processors and send home employees because of the shutdown. "This lapse in funds will likely increase the backlog instead of continuing the progress," if the shutdown were to continue through late October, Shinseki testified.
Assistant VA Secretary Tommy Sowers, in an Oct. 1 social media post, said the agency projected the backlog would "start increasing."
But the numbers show the opposite occurred. The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in a statement to the News4 I-Team Tuesday, called the agency’s warnings "dire" and said it’s unclear if those warnings ever "came to fruition."
A VA spokeswoman said "hard work" by employees and a decision to exempt claims processors from the furloughs helped prevent the backlog from growing during the shutdown.
Former VA administrator Darin Selnick said the agency’s ability to prevent further backlogs -- despite the loss of overtime pay and employees -- shows the agency should be operating more efficiently on a more consistent basis.