DIANA M. RUBENS
ASSOCIATE DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY FOR FIELD OPERATIONS
VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE & MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
May 22, 2008
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today. I am pleased to provide information on the Veterans Benefits Administration ( VBA) outreach initiatives designed to address the needs of the brave men and women who are actively serving our country today and those of our distinguished veterans. I believe that each program I discuss exemplifies our pursuit of providing the best possible service to our Nation's greatest heroes.
Benefits Information at time of Induction into Service
Since November 2004, everyone inducted into the five military branches receives a VA benefits pamphlet at the Military Entrance Processing Station. This pamphlet provides inductees with basic information on VA benefits and services at the start of their military active service. We want to be sure they know that VA will be there for them in the future.
Transition Assistance Program
Transition Assistance Program (TAP) briefings are conducted nationwide and in Europe to prepare retiring or separating military personnel for return to civilian life. At these briefings, servicemembers are informed of the array of VA benefits and services available, instructed on how to complete VA application forms, and advised on what evidence is needed to support their claims. Following the general instruction segment, personal interviews are conducted with those servicemembers who would like assistance in preparing and submitting their applications for compensation and/or vocational rehabilitation and employment benefits.
Disabled Transition Assistance Program
The Disabled Transition Assistance Program ( DTAP) is an integral component of transition assistance for servicemembers who may be released because of disability. Through VA's DTAP briefings, VBA advises transitioning servicemembers about the benefits available through VBA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment ( VR&E) Program. The goal of DTAP is to encourage and assist potentially eligible servicemembers in making informed decisions about the VR&E program and to expedite delivery of these services to eligible servicemembers and veterans.
While TAP and DTAP briefings are central to VA's efforts to inform servicemembers about VA benefits and services, VA also provides briefings to servicemembers about military separation and retirement services programs, military medical facilities, physical evaluation boards, casualty assistance services, and various other military liaison activities.
The chart below reflects the number of briefings and personal interviews conducted by VBA representatives for the past five years. This includes briefings conducted for regular active duty military members, pre- and post-deployment briefings for Reserve and National Guard members, and briefings conducted overseas. VA has increased the number of briefings presented by 40 percent since 2003.
Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment
The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program provides services and assistance necessary to enable veterans with service-connected disabilities to become employable or gains in independence in daily living.
Job Resource Labs were fully deployed in all regional offices in 2006. These labs include all the necessary equipment, supplies, and resource materials to aid VR&E staff and veterans in conducting comprehensive analyses of local and national job outlooks, developing job search plans, preparing for interviews, developing résumés, and conducting thorough job searches. These self-service job resource labs aid veterans in the job search process through the use of a comprehensive online employment preparation and job-seeking tool.
VR&E is also continuing to expand the "Coming Home to Work" initiative, which is a collaborative partnership between VR&E and federal agencies to provide civilian work experiences to interested service members who are in a medical-hold status at military treatment facilities and who meet the eligibility requirements for the VR&E program.
National Guard and Reserve Members
In peacetime, outreach to Reserve and National Guard members is generally accomplished on an "on call" or "as requested" basis. But, with the onset of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom ( OEF/ OIF) and the activation and deployment of large numbers of Reserve and National Guard members, VBA's outreach to this group has greatly expanded. VA has made arrangements with Reserve and Guard officials to schedule briefings for members being mobilized and demobilized. These benefits briefings for Guard and Reserve members increased from 821 briefings for more than 46,000 attendees in FY 2003 to over 1,800 briefings for more than 96,000 attendees in FY 2007.
Transition Assistance Advisors (TAAs)
A memorandum of agreement was signed in 2005 between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Guard Bureau to institutionalize a partnership and to support better communication between the two. VA is encouraging state National Guard Coalitions to improve local communication and coordination of benefits briefings to assure that National Guard and Reserve members are fully aware of benefits. As a part of this partnership, the National Guard Bureau employs 57 Transition Assistance Advisors ( TAAs) for the 50 states and 4 territories.
The TAAs' primary function is to serve as the statewide point of contact and coordinator. They also provide information regarding VA benefits and services to Guard members and their families and assist in resolving any problems with VA healthcare, benefits, and TRICARE. VA and the National Guard Bureau teamed up at the beginning of the program in February 2006 to provide training to the TAAs on VA services and benefits. VA has participated in subsequent annual refresher training, as well as monthly TAA conference calls.
Veterans Assistance at Discharge System (VADS)
The Veterans Assistance at Discharge System ( VADS) generates a "Welcome Home Package" for recently separated veterans (including Reserve and National Guard members) that contains a letter from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, along with pamphlets describing VA benefits and services and a benefits timetable. VADS also sends separate packages that explain Education, Loan Guaranty, and Insurance benefits. In addition to the VADS mailings, a separate personal letter from the Secretary, along with benefits information, is sent to each returning OEF/ OIF veteran. The VADs mailings are sent to the address provided to VBA by the Department of Defense at time of separation.
Benefits Delivery at Discharge
In concert with the military services outreach program, VBA continues its Benefits Delivery at Discharge ( BDD) Program through which servicemembers can apply for service-connected disability compensation within 180 days of discharge. The required physical examinations are conducted, service medical records are reviewed, and a preliminary rating decision is prepared prior to or shortly after discharge so that benefits can be awarded shortly after discharge. Current BDD program participants include 40 regional offices and 153 military installations (142 DoD sites and 11 Homeland Security Coast Guard sites). This number includes five locations overseas (three in Korea and two in Germany). Participation in the BDD program is offered to servicemembers who are within 60 to 180 days of release from active duty and who are able to remain in the area in order to complete the medical examinations.
Disability Evaluation System (DES)
In response to recommendations by the Dole-Shalala Commission, West/Marsh Independent Review Group, Secretary Nicholson's Global War on Terrorism Returning Heroes Commission, VA and DoD launched a Disability Evaluation System ( DES) pilot on November 27, 2007. The DES pilot is scheduled to run for one year. The pilot program differs from the existing DoD DES process in the following significant ways:
The VA rating for the unfitting condition is used by DoD for purposes of determining the amount of severance pay or placement on the temporary or permanent disability retired list. In conjunction with the DES pilot, VA is also initiating enhanced data sharing between DoD and VA regarding medical information.
Seamless Transition Program
With the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom ( OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom ( OIF), VA established the Seamless Transition Program to ensure we are meeting the needs of servicemembers seriously injured in these operations. In 2003, VA began to assign permanent, full-time representatives at key military treatment facilities where seriously injured OEF/ OIF returnees are hospitalized, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Bethesda Naval Medical Center, Eisenhower Army Medical Center, Brooke Army Medical Center, and Madigan Army Medical Center.
VA representatives at these facilities provide benefits information and assist in filing claims. They monitor patient progress and coordinate the submission and smooth transfer of claims to VA regional offices. Each veteran's claim is then case-managed at the appropriate regional office of jurisdiction to expedite processing. Additionally, VA assigns special benefits counselors, social workers, and case-managers to work with these servicemembers and their families throughout the transition to VA care and benefits systems to ensure expedited delivery of all benefits.
VA and its federal partners recently established a new Federal Recovery Coordinator Program Office and deployed Federal Recovery Coordinators to key military treatment facilities. These Coordinators help develop and implement individual recovery plans for seriously injured servicemembers.
Casualty Assistance - In-Service Deaths
Casualty Assistance Officers from VA regional offices visit family members of servicemembers who died on active duty to assist them in applying for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation and other survivors' benefits. These visits are coordinated with the military Casualty Assistance Officers. A special brochure that outlines benefits and services for survivors of servicemembers is provided. The benefits application process is streamlined through the use of a simplified one-page application form that is faxed to the VA Regional Office and Insurance Center in Philadelphia. All of these claims are processed within 48 hours of receipt of required documents. Because family members are in an acute stage of grief during the initial visit, a six-month follow-up letter is sent to ensure that surviving spouses and dependent children are aware of the full range of benefits available to them.
Survivors Benefits Web Site
In 2005, VBA participated in a joint agency effort with the Department of Defense to create a single point of access to benefits information specific to survivors of OEF/ OIF servicemembers. The web site was launched in July 2005 and offers users a choice of information for survivors of servicemembers who died while on active duty, or survivors of veterans who died as a result of a service-connected disability.
Other Eligible Dependents & Survivors
As required by Public Laws 107-14, section 6 (Outreach to Eligible Dependents) and 107-103, section 304 (Improvement of Veterans Outreach Programs), VA has developed pamphlets describing potential benefits. These are mailed out by the regional offices to approximately 600,000 survivors a year that apply for a United States flag for burial purposes. A benefits pamphlet is also sent to all dependents and survivors who file original claims for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Death Pension, Dependents' Educational Assistance, and proceeds of Government Life Insurance.
As part of Public Law 107-95, VBA established full- or part-time Homeless Veterans Outreach Coordinators ( HVOCs) at all 57 regional offices. The HVOCs routinely meet with representatives from various Federal agencies, service organizations, associations, and other groups that are involved in homeless veterans programs, to learn more about programs that homeless veterans may access. HVOCs continue to actively participate in "stand downs" for homeless veterans. Stand downs are typically one to three day events providing food, shelter, clothing, health screenings, VA and Social Security benefits counseling, and referrals to a variety of other services, such as housing, employment, and substance abuse treatment.
Since FY 2003, the VA Regional Offices have conducted personal and telephone interviews with more than 171,000 homeless veterans.
Former POW Outreach
Each VA regional office has a Former Prisoner of War Coordinator who regularly disseminates benefits information and provides individualized assistance to former prisoners of war ( POWs). A computer database is also maintained of all former POWs to ensure all former POWs and their surviving spouses are notified of outreach activities and information of general interest.
Gulf War Veterans
Additional outreach to Gulf War veterans who served in the Southwest Asia Theater of Operations during the period of August 2, 1990 to July 31, 1991 is provided through the Gulf War Review newsletter, which is issued three to four times annually and mailed to about 220,000 individuals. It contains information about Gulf War-related issues and new legislation. A special Gulf War Helpline also supports Gulf War veterans with information and assistance.
Vietnam Veterans Exposed to Agent Orange
The Agent Orange Review newsletter is published annually by the Veterans Health Administration in partnership with VBA and is mailed to approximately 600,000 Vietnam veterans.
VBA outreach coordinators have established relationships with local area agencies on the aging, Social Security Administrationoffices, and other organizations that assist older Americans. VBA distributes 2 million copies of VA Pamphlet 20-00-1, A Summary of VA Benefits, to the more than 1,300 Social Security Administration offices nationwide annually.
Women Veterans Coordinators at regional offices continue to work closely with their counterparts in the Veterans Health Administration and Vet Centers, as well as with local service organization representatives. Through such partnering, local outreach events have been expanded to regional activities such as the annual Women Veterans Appreciation Day in Branson, Missouri. VBA representatives at the national and local levels continue to work with the Center for Women Veterans, the VHA Women Veterans Health Program, and the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, to improve outreach to women veterans. VBA is currently working with the Center for Women Veterans and Seamless Transition Offices to plan the June 2008 National Summit for Women Veterans.
Mr. Chairman, VBA outreach programs provide wide dissemination of information on the array of benefits and services available to servicemembers, veterans, and their families. Our employees are dedicated to ensuring veterans receive the benefits and services they have earned through their service to our Nation, and we work diligently to provide information and assistance in a timely, thorough, accurate, understandable, and respectful manner.
The effectiveness of our aggressive outreach efforts is demonstrated in the dramatic increase in the number of veterans who are filing disability claims. VBA's annual claims receipts have grown 45 percent - from 578,773 claims received in 2000 to 838,141 in 2007, an increase of 259,368. In 2008, we anticipate claims receipts will exceed 850,000.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony. I greatly appreciate being here today and look forward to answering your questions.