DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY FOR BENEFITS
VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
BEFORE THE SENATE VETERANS' AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS FIELD HEARING
July 6, 2005
[Mr. Obama and Mr. Gutierrez, thank you for the opportunity to talk with you today about a critical benefit for veterans - disability compensation.]
This morning I will discuss the issue of pay disparities for disability compensation benefits and the ongoing initiatives of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to ensure consistency in disability rating decisions. I will also provide an overview of our efforts to support returning service members and their families.
Review of State Variances in VA Disability Compensation Payments
Consistency in disability evaluations and payments to veterans has become a very visible concern in recent months. When the issue of consistency was first raised, the Secretary asked the Inspector General (IG) to review and evaluate the factors that contribute to state variances in VA disability compensation payments.
The IG published its review report on May 19, 2005, citing a number of complex and intervening factors that influence variances in disability compensation payments. Several recommendations were included to address the variance in disability compensation payments. VBA concurs in the recommendations and has efforts underway to implement them.
Considerable attention has been focused on the Chicago Regional Office’s low average annual disability compensation payment per veteran. However, when measured on an annual basis, average payments to veterans in Illinois increased, placing them above the national average.
Chicago RO management has worked hard over the past several years to improve the office’s performance. These changes began with a reinforced cultural attitude emphasizing granting benefits whenever possible. Aggressive steps were taken to improve rating quality through increased training efforts, routine local reviews, and regular feedback to decision makers. The results of those actions are evidenced by the increased average disability payments achieved over the past five years as well as marked improvements in rating quality.
Concern has been expressed that staffing at the Chicago Regional Office may not be sufficient to handle a significant increase in claims and that VA may not be able to provide timely service to transitioning service members returning from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF). VBA is addressing staffing needs in Chicago through the assignment of permanent and temporary staff. The Chicago Regional Office was recently given special authority to hire 12 new employees. We will continue to monitor Chicago’s workload demands and staffing levels to ensure that it is staffed appropriately and consistently within the available resources.
To augment Chicago’s claims adjudication staff, VBA has assembled a team of five Veteran Services Representatives, all of whom are skilled in claims development. The team members are focused specifically on processing claims from veterans who have submitted new disability claims or reopened their claims as a result of recent media attention on the variance issue.
The Chicago Regional Office’s commitment is evidenced by their efforts to improve performance and partner with state and local organizations. While there are improvements to be made, we need to recognize the positive steps that have been taken to ensure quality services are provided to Illinois veterans.
On June 8, 2005, VBA leadership and Chicago management met with Mr. Eric Schuller, Senior Policy Advisor to Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, which resulted in the development of a pilot effort to provide itinerant outreach services to veterans at IDVA’s offices in Springfield. This effort will enable us to provide increased direct service to veterans in that part of the state.
In conjunction with the pilot, the Chicago RO will provide training to representatives from local service organization posts who assist veterans with benefit claims. The goal is to increase the knowledge of these community-based representatives who are widely dispersed throughout the state so they can be more effective in their outreach and assistance efforts.
Quality and consistency are goals that have been at the center of VBA’s efforts for the past three years. Achieving consistency and quality in our regional office operations ensures veterans in every state receive the benefits and service they have earned. Critical to our success is our standardized work management model for claims processing. Under the Claims Processing Improvement Model, veterans service center employees in every regional office are aligned into specialized teams designed to expedite claims processing, increase the quality of decision making, and ensure staff expertise.
Training, both for new employees and to raise the skill levels of the more experienced staff, is obviously key to consistency in our rating decisions. VBA deployed new training tools and centralized training programs that support greater consistency. Training materials and satellite broadcasts on the proper approach to rating complex issues have been provided to every field station. Regulations that contain the Schedule for Rating Disabilities have been revised to eliminate ambiguous rating criteria and replace them with objective rating criteria wherever possible.
Regional office operations are monitored continually to identify areas where quality improvements can be made and processing efficiencies can be realized. Site visits are conducted on a regular basis to assess station management, operating performance, training, and workload management. Training is provided by the site visit team as needed.
Concurrent with our focus on consistency, VA is working hard to ensure that military members have a “seamless transition” from active duty to VA’s benefits and health care systems. VA employees provide services at 140 military bases, where they meet with and counsel service members about their VA benefits and how to file for those benefits as they approach discharge. VA has professional staff at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, the Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany, and other key military medical facilities to ensure our wounded service members are aware of their VA health care and benefits long before they are discharged.
We have implemented case management procedures for seriously disabled service members of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) to ease their transition to veteran status and ensure the coordinated delivery of benefits and services. Every regional office and medical center has a designated OEF/OIF coordinator who reaches out to and communicates with injured service members, and ensures their health needs are met and their benefit claims are processed expeditiously.
VA strives to honor each new veteran and their family with compassion and dignity. Our challenge is to ensure that all regional offices are generating consistently accurate and timely decisions that provide the maximum benefits to which veterans are entitled.
[This completes my statement, and I will be happy to answer any questions you might have.]