(WASHINGTON) – The American Federation of Government Employees, (AFGE), testified today that employees in the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) are up to the challenge of resolving the agency’s million-plus claims backlog. The VBA, which has been inundated with benefits claims from service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, is facing a monumental challenge to deliver services in a timely manner. To address these systemic challenges AFGE has worked closely with congressional leaders to enact legislation, P.L. 110-389, to modernize the VBA’s disability claims process by improving employee certification and training procedures, overhauling the current work credit system and work management system, and enhancing the use of information technology.
“Can the VA handle 1 million claims? We can and we must, because we cannot fail those who have never failed us,” said Michael Ratajczak , an AFGE member and decision review officer at the VBA regional office in Cleveland, Ohio, who testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. “AFGE and the VBA employees we represent – many of whom are veterans themselves – are committed to working with the VA and Congress to ensure that every veteran’s claim is processed with accuracy and timeliness,”
AFGE expressed encouragement at VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s willingness to involve frontline employees and labor representatives as key stakeholders in addressing the mountainous backlog. “For many years, we were seen as part of the problem instead of part of the solution,” said Alma Lee, president of AFGE’s National VA Council. “Frontline employees who work in these areas have invaluable institutional knowledge and really should be relied upon to help fix the cracks in the system.”
AFGE offered the VBA with solutions to further educate employees on how to more effectively manage the processing of veterans benefits claims. According to AFGE, the VBA can reduce the amount of time it takes to process a veterans’ claim by first consulting with frontline employees. AFGE also recommended to Congress in previous testimony that the VBA reemphasize the use of joint-labor management teams to produce a more effective training program and reduce duplicative efforts.
AFGE urged the VBA to move towards a paperless file system. Mr. Ratajczak presented a two-step process to a paperless environment. First, starting with new clams, scan all documents associated with initial claims received so that they are available to adjudicators in an electronic format. Second, scan existing claims files prior to being transferred between VBA Review Officers. Any electronic system would also enable treating physicians at VA medical facilities greater accessibility to a patients files.
“The ability of veterans to receive their claims in a timelier manner is inextricably tied to the level of training received by claims processors,” said Lee “In the face of these daunting challenges, what we really need is consensus. AFGE is absolutely committed to working with lawmakers and the VBA to ensure that veterans receive their deserved benefits in a timely manner.”