The Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday it now has fewer than 100,000 disability claims older than four months, a "historic milestone" that is one-sixth the size of a long-term backlog that reached a record 611,000 claims in 2013.
Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, said the current backlog of 98,535 claims older than 125 days is the lowest since the agency started measuring the claims backlog in 2007.
The decrease has not come at the expense of quality, Hickey said. Accuracy of disability decisions has improved from about 83 percent in 2011 to 91 percent today, she said.
The gains were achieved in part through use of mandatory overtime for employees in the benefits division, a practice Hickey says officials hope to stop in September.
Mandatory overtime has been effect for nearly three years but "is not sustainable," Hickey said, adding that she is confident that recent gains will not be sacrificed once mandatory overtime concludes.
Hickey attributed to the gains to hard work by employees at the Veterans Benefits Administration, as well as improved computer systems and the willingness of VA doctors and nurses to provide veterans with medical examinations needed to support disability claims.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, credited VA workers for "putting in extra effort the last few years" to reduce the claims backlog and deliver long overdue benefits to more veterans.
"But given VA's history of hiding veterans off the books, we cannot forget the ongoing investigations into data manipulation and destruction of claims documents across the country," Miller said in a statement. Citing a widespread problem of secret waiting lists for VA health care, Miller said officially reported numbers from the VA "rarely tell the whole story."
And with nearly 100,000 veterans "still languishing on the initial claims backlog alone, it is still far too early to pat ourselves on the back," he said.
The Veterans Benefits Administration has faced sharp criticism in recent years, as lawmakers and President Barack Obama decried a huge backlog that was denying hundreds of thousands of veterans needed benefits.
The rush to close the backlog caused its own problems. Last year, the VA's office of inspector general said the VBA made benefits payments of more than $85 million to veterans who lacked adequate medical evidence that they deserved them.
The IG's office also found widespread problems at VA regional offices in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities, including mail bins full of unopened disability claims and manipulation of data by agency workers.
The IG's office has said it is conducting a wide review of the Philadelphia office, investigating two senior leaders for possible misconduct.
Separately, the VA said it has launched a top-down review of its handling of disability claims and pledged to punish those who falsify data.
Hickey told reporters Monday that the VA has asked the IG to label as resolved 20 of 33 issues raised by the IG report on the Philadelphia office. So far the IG has not done so.
Many of the remaining issues cannot be resolved without additional money for increased staffing and improved ability to handle appeals, Hickey said.
Despite its well-documented problems, the Philadelphia office is among those that have reduced their claims backlogs in recent months, Hickey said. Just 3,151 Philadelphia-based claims are older than 125 days, she said, compared with a high of 12,826.
Even as she celebrated the smaller backlog, Hickey said the agency is unlikely to eliminate the backlog entirely, as former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki promised. Nor is it likely to reach a 98 percent accuracy goal set by Shinseki.
Hickey called those "aspirational" goals that are beyond the agency's reach without a significant increase in staffing and changes in law.