By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A long-growing backlog of U.S. military veterans' disability claims, which has stoked congressional anger, has dipped in recent weeks, however tentatively.
But that is not taking any pressure off President Barack Obama, his Department of Veterans Affairs or the Pentagon to fix a system that has left veterans waiting - sometimes for years - to get answers from the U.S. government about their disability claims.
Instead, warnings from Congress are growing more acute. Senator Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and a Democrat, like Obama, warned she would look at "our carrots and our sticks" to force action.
"You should not have to stand in line for more than a year if you have a disability (claim) pending with the Veterans Administration," Mikulski told reporters this week.
Between March 9 and May 20, the backlog in compensation claims fell 8 percent to 538,679, after growing four-fold over the past four years, according to VA data. Experts say it is too early to tell whether that decline will be sustained.
The Obama administration estimated in April the backlog could grow in the coming months before finally starting a firm trend downward - all the way to zero - officials hope, by sometime in 2015.
But many lawmakers and veterans' advocates are skeptical the VA is really on the path to eliminate the backlog in 2015, when the goal would be to process all claims within 120 days.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Republican, has sponsored a measure suspending performance bonuses for VA senior executives for five years, which passed his committee on May 8. The VA already suspended some bonuses for this fiscal year, when ends in September.
"Until we have complete confidence that VA is holding executives accountable - rather than rewarding them - for their mistakes, no one should get a performance bonus," Miller said.
WHO'S TO BLAME?
The increased backlog has exposed Obama's administration to ridicule from television satirist Jon Stewart and put pressure on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a former Army chief and Vietnam veteran who was wounded in that conflict.
Shinseki, who is centering his initiatives on moving 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 that have sat in the system for years.
His top officials are on the defensive.
"Yes, claims got old. They did. We are sorry about that. We're working hard to get answers for those veterans," Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, told a congressional hearing on Wednesday.
The extent to which the Pentagon may be to blame for the VA's backlog has also come into focus in recent days. Hickey complained about having to go back to the U.S. military to search for additional medical records, a time-consuming process.
But in a memo on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said only 4 percent of the current VA backlog was "associated with the transfer or completeness of DOD records."
Still, it took the VA almost 175 days on average to try to secure service treatment records when trying to process claims, according to a February memo signed by VA and DOD officials and obtained by Reuters.
Asked about the memo, a Pentagon official told Reuters the Defense Department had agreed to certify to the VA within 45 days that it was providing complete records. The official said the Pentagon was starting to implement that agreement.
Mikulski said she wanted to see a sense of urgency from the VA and the Pentagon.
"We know they're stressed. We know they're strained. But we have put a lot of money in the federal checkbook," she said. "Now they've got to use it in the right way to shrink this backlog."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)