MILWAUKEE, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told a national veterans group Tuesday his department is making progress in reducing the backlog of health claims.
"We intend to break the back of the backlog this year," Shinseki told those attending the 92nd annual American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee.
He said the department will cut the average time it takes to process a claim from 160 days down to 125 days by the end of the year, vowing further improvements from there.
"Our goal is not an average," Shinseki said. "It's not just going to be faster; also better and more accurate. There's nothing magical about 125 days, especially because when we get there, we'll be looking at another target."
More than 1 million claims were submitted last year, a 75 percent increase in a decade and a high-water mark in the 80-year-old department's history in 2009, the department said in a release.
Gates said the VA expects to treat more than 6.1 million veterans in 2011. Nearly a half-million of them will be Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
He said the VA hired more than 3,500 claims workers this year and is developing a paperless claims process that is to be in place in 2012.
Shinseki also told the Legion members the department has expanded its coverage of veterans with Agent Orange- and Gulf War-related illnesses thanks to a $13.4 billion appropriation by Congress.
"It was the right decision," Shinseki said, "and the president and I are proud to finally provide this group of veterans, our Vietnam [war] veterans, the care and benefits they've long deserved."
He added the claims process is now easier for those affected by post-traumatic stress and the VA has added 20,000 mental-healthcare workers since President Obama took office.