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VA 'surges' forward to clear backlog of disability claims

If you have noticed more New Yorkers taking Fridays off to enjoy what the city has to offer, it could be because the sequester has kicked in. Those seemingly carefree people strolling through Midtown are taking a mandatory day off so their employer can meet the budget cuts under the Budget Control Act.

But as other federal agencies struggle under the sequester, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been operating under "the surge." The VA is exempt from the act, and in May, the department authorized a push to reduce the longstanding backlog of disability claims. The plan is simple: Every VA employee who handles claims must work at least 20 hours of overtime each month through September. So much for those Fridays off.

According to President Barack Obama, the surge and other strategies are paying off. The extra hours have allowed claims handlers to chip away at the backlog, reducing the number of pending claims by 20 percent in the last five months, the president said recently at a Disabled American Veterans convention. The number of claims pending for more than 125 days has dropped from 611,000 at the end of March to 500,000 in August.

The surge also includes a renewed focus on processing claims that have been in the pipeline more than 365 days. It's a challenge, though, especially since the president approved greater access to benefits for veterans with Agent Orange-related disabilities. The move could mean an increase in applications for benefits.

The president told convention-goers that the federal government is also working on emerging disability issues for veterans, particularly mental health problems. The government will spend more than $100 million on research into post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and other mental health matters that have become so much more prevalent and visible since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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