(WASHINGTON) – Today, the American Federation of Government Employees’ National VA Council testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs at a hearing dedicated to the review of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s claims processing. AFGE’s National Veterans Affairs Council represents 196,000 frontline employees in all areas of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The testimony was delivered by Linda Jan Avant, a Rating Specialist at the VBA Regional Office in Little Rock, Ark., and 1st vice-president of AFGE Local 2054. In testimony, AFGE and NVAC focused on three areas: (1) VBA Pilot Programs (2) S. 3517, Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2010; and (3) Telework production standards at the VBA’s Regional Offices and other personnel issues related to claims improvement.
AFGE’s members at facilities involved in the VBA pilots have been largely supportive of the programs, both in terms of effectiveness and inclusion of front line employees. Particularly, employees have noted that working as a cohesive team has led to substantial improvements in the claims process.
“The ability of front line staff to contribute pre-decisional input to the pilot programs has been integral to their success,” said Avant. “Everyone on the team, including front line employees, management and consultants, shared a commitment to helping veterans. Our ability to work together toward this goal was a key ingredient in its overall success and enabled us to identify unnecessary steps in the claims process that could be eliminated.”
While the programs have been largely successful, AFGE has expressed some concern with moving the pilot programs nationwide too early. “There is a general consensus that it is too early to replicate these experiments on a national scale. Additional training and hands-on experience for employees who have been recently hired or promoted is essential to successful implementation nationally,” said Avant. NVAC President Alma L. Lee also noted, “We should not go fully paperless until more advanced scanning technologies become available.”
AFGE and NVAC also provided testimony on the “Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2010,” S.3517. “We commend Chairman Akaka’s effort to update and improve the musculoskeletal rating schedule; however, we question the need to make this change through legislation when VBA is already revising the rating schedule,” said Avant. According to the union, the musculoskeletal rating schedule maintains ambiguous and outdated terms that further complicate the rating of claims. AFGE and NVAC also expressed concern with several bill provisions relating to claims processing and appeals.
In testimony, AFGE and NVAC renewed their call for the VBA to eliminate higher production quotas for telework employees. “The current disparity for telework employees handicaps the VBA’s ability to retain the most experienced employees,” said Avant. Citing overcrowding at VBA Regional Offices, Ms. Lee said that equal production standards for work-at-home employees would alleviate space shortages and lessen the need for second shifts.
AFGE is committed to working with Congress, the VA, and other stakeholders in the veterans’ service community to ensure that veterans’ claims are processed in a timely and accurate manner.