(WASHINGTON) –At a March 20th hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, lawmakers and VA officials engaged in heated exchanges about the most effective way to reduce the VA’s disability claims backlog and increase accuracy of claims determinations. Both lawmakers and officials from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) referenced recommendations from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the exclusive representative of VA employees processing veterans’ disability benefits at Regional Offices (RO) across the country.
In its written statement to the Committee, AFGE focused on several critical workforce issues that are essential to the success of VBA Transformation, including an overhaul of arbitrary performance standards, an end to training shortcuts by management, and a new system for allocating resources to ROs that supports, rather than punishes low performing offices.
“The VA is experiencing serious problems with recruiting and retaining quality employees, in part, because of its performance standards,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “We’re constantly hearing from our members about the difficulty in meeting these standards and the increasing pressure from management that emphasizes quantity over quality. It’s time for the agency to take meaningful steps in developing a program that is realistic and incorporates the perspective of organized labor.”
VA Under Secretary for Benefits General Allison Hickey testified that the agency’s new system for going paperless, the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), is already making headway toward faster claims processing. However, as AFGE pointed out, the initial roll-out of VBMS has revealed significant glitches, and front line employees do not have effective avenues for sharing their valuable insight into system breakdowns.
“While we support electronic delivery systems that will improve the efficiency of processing claims, we have to make significant improvements to VBMS,” said Cox. “The VA must incorporate the feedback from front line claims processors, as they deal with this system each and every day. It doesn’t do us any good to brag about the use of the latest technology if it’s only slowing down our employees who are delivering critical services to our veterans.”
AFGE was pleased that General Hickey and some Committee members recognized the importance of revising the agency’s system for resource allocation among ROs, and ending the practice of shifting staff to higher performing offices. Rather, resource allocation should focus more on the demand for services by veterans in each community.
“A huge barrier to processing claims in a timely fashion is the VA’s practice of starving regional offices of the resources needed to get the job done,” said AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee. “We have seen the agency send resources to other offices in order to boost numbers, or possibly to bring on more contractors; this needs to end. Federal employees within the VBA are dedicated to serving our veterans and making sure they receive the benefits they’ve earned. However, they cannot carry out their mission if the agency continues to play politics with valuable resources.”
Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) referenced AFGE’s recommendation for stronger incentives for retain experienced Veterans Service Representatives (VSRs). General Hickey testified she would be open to negotiate a possible senior VSR position to help keep employees in this job and reward senior employees.
Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) questioned General Hickey about recent changes to performance standards, which set production quotas for claims processors. AFGE and veterans’ groups have long opposed arbitrary production standards driven largely by politics, and have called for the development of new evidence-based standards that would improve both accuracy and timeliness. Any effort to overhaul these standards will only succeed if the front line employees and veterans service officers who process claims on a daily basis have a seat at the table for any VA effort to study and overhaul these measures.
To read AFGE’s full statement for the record visit: http://1.usa.gov/YtSoWc.