The enormous backlog of benefits claims that has plagued the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over the past four years represents a major failure to live up to the promises made to men and women who have worn our nation's military uniforms.

It is terrible disservice to veterans, who have a right to expect timely responses to their requests for needed benefits.

As such it has become a major political embarrassment for the Obama administration - and rightly so.

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urged that those responsible for the slow progress in reducing the backlog, much of it for service-related disabilities, be fired.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general, responded to the controversy Monday by releasing new numbers indicating that, contrary to Republican lawmakers' charges, major progress has been made. His figures showed a decline of backlogged cases over the last year, from 611,000 to 344,000 cases.

That is a significant reduction. Yet it's too soon for the agency to claim success.

Most of the progress Veterans Affairs has made over the past 12 months in cutting the backlog was accomplished in the first six. From April through September 2013, the backlog was reduced by 190,000 cases.

Since then it has fallen another 77,000 cases, less than half the rate achieved during previous six months.

One reason is that the agency chose to stop mandatory overtime work during the winter holiday season.

The rate of reduction has picked up significantly since the end of January, reaching an average of 27,000 backlogged cases being resolved per month for the last two months.

But even at that rate, the VA will be hard pressed to meet Secretary Shinseki's target of eliminating the backlog altogether by September 2015.

And each case represents a veteran who deserves timely attention to his or her individual application for benefits.

A case is considered backlogged after 125 days. That means the system allows four months for the bureaucracy to solve a matter that typically involves a veteran's health and welfare before it is considered "late."

For veterans in poor health, four months is not an acceptable period of time to have an application resolved .

Imagine if the private sector expected its customers to countenance such delays. Medical patients would simply seek treatment elsewhere.

That option isn't available to those who are seeking a response to their requests for VA benefits. A backlog of 344,000 cases still represents far too many veterans waiting in line for far too long.

But give VA officials some credit for progress to date, recognizing that it takes a while to move the bureaucratic equivalent of a mountain.

Even so, Congress must keep the pressure on until the agency eliminates all delays in meeting the needs of veterans.

And Veterans Affairs should make every effort to step up the pace and redefine what is considered an acceptable time of response.

Considering the immense debt our nation owes its veterans, they deserve to have their cases expedited, not bogged down in paperwork and bureaucratic red tape.