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Veterans Benefit Administration History

For over a decade the Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA) has been trying to address the issue of claims processing - backlog. In this period of time, they have tried two models.

In 1999, the VBA reorganized under the Business Processing Reengineering model to reduce backlog and improve service to veterans. However, less than three years later, it failed. The reason for its failure was described by the VA Claims Processing Task Force Report in October 2001 as follows: "VBA's Business Processing Reengineering (BPR) analysis and other improvement initiatives, including case management and merging of the Adjudication and Veterans Assistance Divisions, have been based on several assumptions, some of which have been invalid: VBA's workload would remain static or decline in the out-years; there would be no future wars, military conflicts, or major legislative C&P benefit changes; and claims processing performance was not influenced by the number and size of Regional Offices."

In October 2001, a VA Claims Processing Task Force chaired by Admiral Daniel Cooper, who shortly thereafter was named the Under Secretary of VA Benefits, submitted a report to the VA Secretary outlining the problems with VA Claims Processing. The report stated, "The Task Force was surprised by the apparent lack of uniformity in interpreting directives, compliance, and ultimate accountability at the vast majority of the Regional Offices visited or represented in discussion groups. VBA's Central Office leadership gives the impression of neither demanding adherence to nor of being completely aware of the actual compliance to directives at the individual Regional Office level. While there is and should be room for individual initiative and leadership at each Regional Office (RO), there must be required processes and mandated actions that are implemented across the VBA. If there is no base structure, there cannot be reliable measurement or any reasonable assurance that claims decisions will be made as uniformly and fairly as possible to the benefit of the veteran." This report birthed the Claims Processing Improvement (CPI) model which is still in operation today. Unfortunately, the major problem cited in this report still exists.

The Claims Process Improvement Task Team Report, November 30, 2001 states, "One of the over arcing themes in all of the Recommendations in the Task Force report was accountability for all employees, from the leadership in Central Office to the mail clerks in the RO. We couldn't agree more. The Task Team strongly believes in order to hold people accountable you must be able to measure their performance. The most effective way to measure performance is to ensure effective measurement systems are in place. To be effective, those systems must be measuring the same things. This cannot happen if each RO is allowed to organize the claims process differently from other ROs and create, post and fill positions differently from those used in other ROs. Uniformity in decision-making and standardization in RO organizational structure are musts."

The Claims Processing Improvement Directive states, "We believe the CPI model will significantly improve claims processing. Throughout the report, wherever possible, we have been very specific in the types of positions assigned to each teams, the grades assigned to those positions and the duties for those positions. We have also enlisted the help of the Office of Human Resources to write the Position Descriptions for the positions listed in this report. Deviation from the model (other than those specifically indicated in the implementation plan), including (but not limited to) changes in position descriptions, creation of additional positions or changes to grade structure, should only be permitted based upon a specific request from the RO Director to the Under Secretary of Benefits. The request must be based upon sound business principles and must not be implemented without prior approval of the Under Secretary."

For several years, AFGE Local 520 has written letters to the VA Chain of Command, the SC Congressional Delegation, the Congressional VA Committees, the Headquarters, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and other stakeholders. These letters contained information about the lack of VBA accountability, the problems with claims processing, and the treatment of VBA employees. The silence was not expected. However, the politics were amazing.

Over this timeframe, the VA Secretary Nicholson resigned under fire for presiding over a $1 billion shortfall, a backlog of 600,000 disability cases, staffing shortages at the Vet Center, two security breaches that jeopardized the personal information of millions of veterans resulting in a 20 million dollar settlement, and approving lavish bonuses to the very VA officials responsible for the whole mess. Despite Congress' outcry in 2007, these VA officials are still receiving bonuses (Click here). It is hypocritical to condemn bailed out businesses for using taxpayers dollars for bonuses and rewarding VBA officials who have failed the American veteran with lavish bonuses.

On February 14, 2008, after the House Committee on VA hearing on claims backlog, the Under Secretary of VBA Secretary Cooper, retired. However, the Director of Field Operations Mr. Micheal Walcoff was appointed as the new Deputy Under Secretary of VBA. The very official who was responsible for supervising Regional Offices and ensuring the execution of the CPI.

Under VA Secretary Peake, the VA OIG investigated "shredding gate" in which veterans' claims documents were found in shredding bins in 41 of out 57 VBA Regional Offices. Assistant Inspector General for Auditing Belinda J. Finn testified before Congress on March 3, 2009 and stated, "We will discuss the vulnerability of veterans' claim records and documentation to improper destruction and the accuracy of VBA regional office (VARO) compensation and pension (C&P) benefit claim dates. In both of these areas, VBA lacked adequate management controls."

Now, we are taking about the new paperless solution. For the record, the VBA regional offices have had access to the VHA electronic medical records for years creating the term a "seamless VA." However, the VBA regional offices are still downloading, printing, reviewing and filing paper copies of electronic VHA medical records. The real issue in VBA is still the LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY.

When it comes to claims processing, the VBA is failing our Nation's veterans and its employees, and this is a fact. However, the greatest tragedy is no one believes that it can get better and no one will help to make it better. We continue to change the game plan, but have the same players with the same attitudes and results. The VBA has adopted the attitude that it has and will always have claims backlog and it equates to job security, more employees, and a larger budget. It is impossible to improve service to veterans, if the players who are charged with serving them don't believe it can happen, cannot execute a successful game plan, and cannot motivate employees who must make it happen. Moreover, the growth of Nonrating cases and Appeals claims has ballooned since the implementation of the CPI.

The VBA uses a three digit code called end products to determine the types of claims pending. The VBA currently has 13 different end products they use to determine inventory. It is further defined as rating and non rating end products. There are 8 rating end products and 5 non rating end products. Then, there are appeals. However, the VBA's main focus is on the rating end products. The non-rating end products are claims for death pension for surviving spouses and children, adding of additional benefits for dependents of veterans who are 30% or more service connected, apportionment benefits for dependents of service connected veterans, burial benefits, due process, administrative decisions for home loans and hospital treatment, legislative increases for veterans that the system did not generate automatically, and a number of other benefit issues. The Compensation and Pension Service is a three headed monster and attention is only paid to rating end products while the non-rating end products and appeals just grow and grow. the three-headed monsterView Document

The VA Task Force of October 2001 in the most part got it right identifying the issues resulting in the problems with claims processing. However, in spite of hiring Chairman Cooper of the Task Force as the Under Secretary of Benefits, he could not break the spell that hovers over VBA - regional offices' autonomy and the lack of the central office to hold them accountable. In spite of almost seven years of CPI, we still have 57 different VBAs. We must solve the accountability problem before any system will work. The Task Force identified it as a major problem in October 2001 and the past decade has proven it.

On the VBA website under the title "About VA" you can find these words:

Leadership Covenant of the Veterans Benefits Administration June 28, 2002

Preamble
We are the leaders in one of our Nation's most vital and idealistic service organizations. Because we serve veterans and their dependents, our mission is sacred. The well-known statements of President Abraham Lincoln and General Omar Bradley are found in every VA office and convey the sanctity of our mission.

"...to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan..." Abraham Lincoln; March 4, 1865

"We are dealing with veterans, not procedures - with their problems, not ours." Omar Bradley; 1947

As we carry out this mission, we willfully enter into a covenant with one another to always be guided by the fundamental principles of Accountability, Integrity, and Professionalism. These principles form the foundation of Leadership and Service to America's veterans.

This covenant resides in the hearts and minds of those who sign it and will be shared with all who serve in VBA. "We, the undersigned, accept accountability, embrace integrity, and commit to exhibiting professionalism in the execution of our mission of service to veterans. In all of our actions, we pledge to be guided by these fundamental principles of leadership, thereby ensuring fulfillment of this covenant."

On June 28, 2002, the Covenant was signed by every VBA Station and Staff Director.

After reading the words of the VBA mission statement, vision, core values, and the leadership covenant, AFGE Local 520 reports that words are meaningless without validation through corresponding action and that the leadership covenant has been breached.

AFGE Local 520's argument of a lack of accountability at all levels of the VBA is drawn from a well document account of how the VARO Columbia, SC has been allowed to disregard VA directives, abuse their authority, and mock for over a decade the CPI.

Moreover, AFGE Local 520 has also chronicled the failure of the VBA leadership and oversight at the Central Office level since the implementation of CPI.