HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS’ AFFAIRS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
FEBRUARY 24, 2010
STATEMENT OF DIANA RUBENS
ASSOCIATE DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY FOR FIELD OPERATIONS,
VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
February 24, 2010
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, it is my pleasure to be here today to discuss our ongoing nationwide Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) and Quick Start pre-discharge programs. Joining me today is Bradley Mayes, Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Compensation & Pension (C&P) Service.
The BDD and Quick Start programs are two elements of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA) strategy to provide transitional assistance to separating or retiring servicemembers and engage servicemembers in the claims process prior to discharge. A pre-discharge claim is any claim received from a servicemember prior to release from active duty. VBA’s goal is to ensure that each and every servicemember separating or retiring from active duty who wishes to file a claim with VA for service-connected disability benefits will receive assistance in doing so.
Participation in the BDD program is open to servicemembers who are within 60 to 180 days of being released from active duty and who are able to report for a VA examination prior to discharge. However, for those servicemembers with 59 days or less before separation, VA introduced the “Quick Start” pre-discharge claims process in July 2008. This provides servicemembers within 59 days of separation, or servicemembers within 60-180 days of separation who are unable to complete all required examinations prior to leaving the point of separation, to be assisted in filing their disability claim.
The BDD and Quick Start pre-discharge programs offer advantages to Veterans. Minimal development is required because service records are readily available and examinations are requested prior to discharge. Once service treatment records are obtained, the servicemember acknowledges that notification required by the Veterans Claims Assistance Act of 2000 has been provided and is offered the opportunity to acknowledge that no additional medical evidence needs to be submitted. After the VA examination is conducted, the claim can be rated in a timely manner. This process has generated a very high participation rate among servicemembers because disability benefits are received shortly after separation from service. During fiscal year (FY) 2009, BDD and Quick Start claims represented just over 20 percent of all original compensation claims received nationwide. However, during this same period, approximately 65 percent of separating servicemembers who filed their claims within one year of their discharge did so through the BDD and Quick Start programs.
The average processing time, or average days to complete (ADC), for BDD and Quick Start claims continues to show gradual improvement. At the end of FY 2009, ADC for BDD claims was 70.8 days. At the end of FY 2009, ADC for Quick Start claims was 105.9. ADC for both programs remains significantly lower than the nationwide ADC (160.7 days at the end of FY 2009) for all disability rating claims received.
VBA established the BDD program at three VA regional offices and three Army installations in 1995, and nationwide expansion began in 1998. Expansion promoted the development of claims and the conduct of physical examinations sufficient for VA rating purposes prior to separation with a disability rating to be completed as closely proximate as possible to separation from active duty.
As the program gained momentum, the Department of Defense (DoD) and VA signed a national memorandum of agreement in 2004 to establish the specific responsibilities of each department. At the same time, a team of VBA leaders from central office, area offices, and regional offices (ROs) developed a proposal in November 2004 for consolidation of BDD claims processing. This provided an opportunity to improve consistency in the way BDD claims are received and processed. It also allowed VBA to reach a greater number of servicemembers as well as improve the quality and accuracy of rating decisions. The Winston-Salem and Salt Lake City ROs were selected as consolidated processing locations. BDD claims from the Eastern and Southern Areas were consolidated to Winston-Salem, while the BDD claims from the Central and Western Areas were transferred to Salt Lake City. This consolidation was completed in April 2007.
BDD claims processing was further streamlined by incorporating imaging technology to enable paperless processing of these claims. Paperless BDD claims processing began as a pilot at the Winston-Salem Rating Activity Site (RAS) in March 2006 and was expanded to the Salt Lake City RAS in March 2007. The goal was to paperlessly process BDD claims through their entire life cycle, from initial submission through adjudication and if applicable, appeal resolution. The advantages to processing BDD claims in a paperless environment included the reduction of time and costs associated with shipment of claims folders. In August 2008, all BDD claims were sent to our scanning vendor for paperless claims processing at the two RAS, and the expansion of BDD paperless claims processing was complete.
Consolidation of pre-discharge claims continued with the consolidation of Quick Start claims to the San Diego RO and Winston-Salem RO in 2009. The San Diego RO handles claims filed within VA’s central and western areas and also those filed from military installations in Korea. The Winston-Salem RO handles claims filed within VA’s eastern and southern areas and also those filed from military installations in Germany.
Current Technology Environment
Currently, all BDD claims are sent to VBA’s scanning vendor, Hands On Ventures Services. All information located within a BDD claims folder is scanned and uploaded into Virtual VA. Virtual VA is the current image repository and provides image capture, storage, and retrieval. The existing Virtual VA architecture and configuration are not a scalable solution for all C&P processing or VBA. The Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) initiative is a large-scale effort to develop an IT solution that is built on a scalable, agile architecture. Coupled with VBA’s business transformation strategy, the VBMS initiative will enable our organization to reach its goal of a benefits delivery model that provides world-class service to our nation’s Veterans.
VBA currently has 143 employees dedicated to processing BDD claims at the Winston-Salem and Salt Lake City RAS, and 129 employees at Winston-Salem and San Diego dedicated to processing Quick Start claims. Additional management and administrative staff are assigned to support BDD and Quick Start claims processing. These employees are dedicated and provide excellent service to participants in both programs.
To ensure that servicemembers are aware of both the BDD and Quick Start programs, VA developed several outreach initiatives. Brochures describing the BDD and Quick Start processes are distributed to servicemembers approaching separation. They are provided to all military installations involved with the programs and are handed out to servicemembers during pre-discharge workshops describing VA benefits. In addition, a Web page on VA’s Internet site describes the pre-discharge programs and explains all requirements. To simplify the actual claims process, BDD and Quick Start claimants can now apply online. These outreach initiatives increase servicemembers’ access to VA benefits and improve claims processing timeliness.
In addition to the BDD and Quick Start programs, VA continues to collaborate with DoD in the seamless transition initiative, promoting a smooth and efficient transition for individuals separating from the military. This includes National Guard and Reserve members who are demobilizing from overseas deployment and returning to their home units. VBA and the Veterans Health Administration conduct joint briefing sessions at military bases designed to provide information on the entire range of VA benefits and health care services.
One formal pre-discharge outreach program conducted by VA and the Departments of Defense and Labor is the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). During TAP briefings, VBA personnel explain the disability compensation process and provide assistance to servicemembers interested in filing a claim. The Disabled Transition Assistance Program (DTAP) is specifically designed to assist servicemembers facing separation because of disability incurred during service. In addition to TAP and DTAP briefings, VA conducts informational sessions for demobilized National Guard and Reserve members at the unit’s community location.
Another major seamless transition project resulting from DoD and VA collaboration is the Disability Evaluation System (DES) for the 27,000 servicemembers who enter the medical evaluation board process on an annual basis. The goals are to improve consistency of outcomes, establish an increased sense of equity by DES participants, increase transparency, reduce the time servicemembers are in the process, and ease their transition to civilian life. This joint effort reduced the time from separation to receipt of initial VA disability payment to an average of 25 days. By end of March 2010, the pilot will be at 27 installations, accounting for 46 percent of all DES participants. Plans are underway for full deployment of the pilot process, pending authorization of the VA/DoD Senior Oversight Committee.
VBA is committed to providing efficient and timely service to our nation’s Veterans. We will continue to evaluate the BDD and Quick Start programs to identify improvements that can be accomplished with the current technology platform and to capture requirements for new technology capabilities to further enhance benefits delivery under these important programs and improve Veterans’ experience. This concludes my testimony. I would be pleased to address any questions you may have.