DANIEL L. COOPER
CHAIRMAN, VA CLAIMS PROCESSING TASK FORCE
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
November 6, 2001
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and other members of the Committee for the invitation to testify before you, and to discuss this very important subject of Veterans' Benefits.
Over the past several months it has been my privilege to chair the Secretary of Veterans Affairs' Claims Processing Task Force that was charged with recommending specific steps to reduce both the veterans' claims backlog and the time necessary to adjudicate each individual claim.
In mid-April, Secretary Principi and I had our initial meeting to discuss the dual problems of the large and increasing claims backlog and the inordinate time delays to properly adjudicate each separate claim. The Task Force charter was formally issued May 22, 2001. In the interim, the Task Force had formed, convened and met in an open fact-finding session.
The Secretary's charge to the Claims Processing Task Force was:
The Secretary's specific goals were, and are, to reduce the backlog of claims by 50% over a two-year period and to compress the average times to process individual claims by 50%.
Further, however, the Secretary emphasized that, given the short time allowed, the Task Force should look primarily to evaluating every possible action he could take today, based on his present authority. His direction was that no Task Force recommendation would require action by either the judicial or legislative branches of our government.
Our Task Force had very talented members from VA headquarters, VBA, VHA, Veterans Service Organizations, and the consulting community. With the exception of two of us, all participants were extremely knowledgeable of the VBA organization and regional office operations. Each Task Force member was highly competent and exceedingly motivated. Further, each of us is proud of our work and confident that this report will absolutely contribute to the success of the Secretary's quest to better serve the veteran.
Given the 90 to 120 days allocated to this project, our primary goal was to achieve maximum credibility with all communities involved. We did this both by studying the reports and recommendations of several committed groups that had preceded us and by visiting as many VBA activities as possible. We also visited or heard from organizations known to have been successful in activities similar to those conducted by VBA. Three very successful companies in areas of great interest to us were: Federal Express, the United Services Automobile Association (USAA), and the Ford Motor Company. We were briefed by the FedEx Center for Cycle Time Research from the University of Memphis and by Ford's Practice Replication Office. In addition, eight of our group visited the USAA Corporate Headquarters in San Antonio, TX. The individual quality and process successes of each of these highly recognized organizations are reflected in several of our recommendations. Within the VBA organization, several of us visited the record centers in St. Louis, training facilities in Baltimore and Orlando, and the information technology center in Hines, IL. Each Task Force member visited at least three individual Regional Offices; a total of 12 Regional Offices were visited. Six Veteran Service Center managers also testified before the Task Force during an open session.
We also sought the opinions, ideas and recommendations of GAO, Congressional staff, Social Security Administration, AFGE labor officials, and Veterans Service Organizations. We had two VSO representatives on the Task Force, but requested that all VSOs who desired to do so, come before the Task Force and present their thoughts, opinions and recommendations. During each visit to a VBA Regional Office, the Task Force also met with VSO representatives. Near the end of the study, we made it known that the Chair would make himself available to any and all groups who desired to meet with him individually. Several groups and individuals did so.
Each of our recommendations has been thoroughly considered by our group and each unanimously accepted. In several cases, the only discussion was the actual strength of the explanatory paragraphs - not the gist of the recommendations. Every finding and recommendation was reinforced as we proceeded; no recommendation is based on a random single idea or incident.
And, since the Task Force report was published, I have received many reinforcing comments and no disclaimers on any recommendation. The degree of agreement with our report has been both surprising and rewarding.
It is our conviction that the vast majority of VBA Regional Office employees have been executing an extremely difficult task to the best of their abilities. For more than a decade, VBA employees have been dealing with a cycle of workload crises. The current backlog is just the latest in a series of oscillations that have become an inherent characteristic of the claims process.
There have been many changes over the last 15 years that have affected the efficiency and productivity of the organization. Many of these changes have been initiated by external influences including judicial decisions and legislation. None are, in and of themselves, bad; but it must be recognized that each causes some ripple effect as claims need to be re-reviewed and re-adjudicated under changing guidelines. That added workload then impacts all claims in the queue.
Early in our deliberations and reinforced throughout our meetings, it was apparent that basic flaws existed in the overarching themes of accountability, communications and change management. These are critical concepts which permeate much of the operations and processes of the organization.
A few people who have perused the document have indicated that our report - with the dual emphasis of reducing the backlog and decreasing the time delays - had somehow denigrated quality. Let me disabuse anyone of such a notion. This entire report speaks to quality. The quality of response and service to veterans is predicated on a timely, accurate, well-stated, documented process. Every recommendation made - be it the "Triage" process of claims, improved medical exam agreement, or BVA processing appeals and remands - is based on improving quality and a quicker response.
Our Task Force developed 34 recommendations; 20 "short-term" and 14 medium-term recommendations which are expected to take longer to implement. "Short-term" connotes a possible initiation of that recommendation within six months. These recommendations are attached to this statement and, Mr. Chairman, I request they be inserted into the record with this statement.
Our recommendations can be grouped into categories, and many overlap into several. Those general categories are: free-up direct labor hours; eliminate the backlog; improve claims timeliness; accountability; organization, management and process; operations; quality of decisions; compensation and pension medical examinations; information technology; appeals and remands, and training.
This concludes my opening statement. Mr. Chairman, I would now like to refer to the briefing packet that has been provided to each Committee member as I address the primary points of the report that was delivered to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on October 3, 2001. I would be pleased to address any questions or comments that you or other members of the Committee may have.