By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After growing steadily for years, the backlog of U.S. military veterans' disability claims is falling sharply - dropping by more than a third since March, the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs said on Thursday.
Eric Shinseki said the progress kept him on track to eliminate the claims backlog by sometime in 2015. It would also allow him to briefly halt mandatory overtime for claims processors, one of the reasons the backlog has fallen.
"This trend line is in the right direction. We've got to keep it going that way," Shinseki told a group of reporters. "I'm not dusting my hands off and saying this is a done deal. This is: More work to be done."
The disability claims pileup during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars exposed President Barack Obama's administration to ridicule, including from television satirist Jon Stewart.
It also put pressure on Shinseki, a former Army chief and Vietnam veteran who was wounded in that conflict. His critics, including in Congress, have long voiced skepticism the VA was on a path to eliminate the backlog.
Shinseki, while focusing on efforts to move the VA to electronic claims records from paper ones, has pushed ahead with a series of initiatives meant to speed handling of claims, particularly ones sitting in the system for years.
As of October 31, the VA said it had completed processing 99.4 percent of all claims older than two years. Shinseki also cited improvements in accuracy.
He said internal VA plans had long predicted that the backlog of claims - defined as those languishing in the system for more than 120 days - would peak sometime in 2013.
That happened in March, when they reached 611,073 claims.
Over the following eight months, his department slashed the backlog by about 211,000 claims. That leaves 400,835, still a large number, but one Shinseki said he was confident he could eliminate by sometime in 2015 or sooner.
"We've got two years (left)," Shinseki said. "I just gotta be smart how to get the workforce to continue to ... sustain the kind of performance they've had."
To that end, Shinseki said he was suspending mandatory overtime for about two months starting on November 23, adding that employees should not be pushed too hard for too long. He acknowledged that the pace of the decline in backlog might slow during that period.
The backlog is one of many high-profile issues the VA is grappling with, including veterans' suicides and homelessness. Shinseki predicted further declines in the veteran homelessness in 2013, but did not offer a forecast.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)