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The Department of Veterans Affairs expects its backlog of disability claims to rise more than 25% to 260,000 claims this month as thousands of new veterans become eligible for benefits.

The department said in a press release that it was hiring 2,000 new staff this month to deal with the backlog. It will also use funds from the American Rescue Plan for overtime pay to speed up processing.

The VA defines a backlogged claim as one that is more than 125 days old. According to the most recent data, almost 7,000 claims in Virginia are considered part of the backlog.

The VA said many of these new claims will be veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange and have developed diseases like Parkinsonism, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism.

This year the VA added these conditions to the list of illnesses that Agent Orange is presumed to have caused. 

The VA also expanded eligibility in 2021 to vets who were exposed to burn pits, industrial air pollution and other hazardous conditions while serving in the Gulf War and post-9/11 operations in southwest Asia.

And last year, the list of veterans who can apply for disability benefits based on exposure to Agent Orange expanded to include those who served offshore during the Vietnam War in the "Blue Water Navy."

"The military takes us in, and we get broken in service," says John Birdwell, a service officer with the Veterans of Foreign Wars office in Norfolk. "The military will try to fix us."

When the military can't fix them, vets file a disability claim.

Service officers at the VFW and other nonprofits like the Disabled American Veterans help people work through the complicated process.

The expected rise in overdue claims coming in October is only part of the picture.

The VA backlog more than doubled in size in 2020 during the first few months of the pandemic, and it stayed around 200,000 claims ever since. The VA said COVID-19 slowed paperwork and suspended some of the medical examinations required to process claims.

"The VA's doing the best job they possibly can," Birdwell said. "Could we throw another 50,000 people at it? Yeah, in a couple of years, they'd be fully up to speed and working great."

But the VA is serving 25 million veterans, he said, and its manpower is limited.

New VA staff will require time to become proficient enough to tackle the workload.

Birdwell estimated it could take 5 years for a VA staffer to get up to speed to do the evaluations.