Forget Your Benefits: “We are Transforming The Veteran’s Administration”

By Al Poteet

“Well…there they go again!”

Top Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) leadership is getting a jump on the ever-increasing backlog of claims filed by our nation’s veterans.

Their new-fangled game plan is to speed up the SYNCRONIZING VBA’s TRANSFORMATION rollout that ostensibly is designed to improve timeliness and quality of VA claims processing.

To that end, VBA has touted a lofty promise to eliminate the backlog of veterans’ claims in three years.

A backlogged claim is one that is pending over 125 days, so that does not include all claims in the adjudication pipeline. Therefore, anything in the pipeline under 125 days is not deemed to be backlogged and therefore not reflected in backlog data.

Backlogged claims are however, a subset of what VBA commonly refers to as inventory of total pending claims.

To the credit of the thousands of VA Regional Office (VARO) employees working to adjudicate the mountain of claims, in FY 2012, they whittled down the number of claims by 1 million while receiving more than 1.2 million adding to the total inventory as well as the backlog.

In October of 2009, VBA redefined a backlogged claim as one that was 180 days old to 125 days and started reflecting the new standard in the stats contained in the Monday Morning Workload Report (MMWR).

From October 2009 until the October 20, 2012, the pending over 125 days (backlog) went from 451,412 to 1,715,027 or a 380 percent increase. During the same period, total pending claims inventory (includes burial, appeals, education, and benefits not paid prior to death of the veteran with a pending claim) went from 1,256,117 to 2,576,188 or a 101 percent increase.

In fairness, all claims require varying amounts of time to adjudicate. But if VBA’s best effort to date is to complete 1 million claims in FY 2012, and in October 2012 there are 2.6 million total pending claims, it could take on average 2.6 years to adjudicate all existing claims — even if no additional claims were forthcoming.

VBA’s professed goal is to end the backlog of all claims greater than 125 days. However, as President Obama is wont to say, “The math doesn’t add up.” If VBA continues to process 1 million claims per annum while receiving an additional 1.2 million claims, it’s a safe bet that the backlog will continue to climb as it has over the last three years.

Since the backlog of claims greater than 125 days over the last three years has risen a whopping a 380 percent, it would appear that it is a physical impossibility, no matter how hard the VARO employees work, to end the backlog by the aforementioned promise of 2015.

However, in order to solve this mathematical conundrum, the VA Central Office czars and czarinas have not only decided to radically shuffle VBA’s workload and adjudication priorities among the 57 Regional Offices, but also expedite the rollout of the transformation!

To accelerate VBA’s transformation “makeover” presents the entire VBA enterprise with significant hoops and hurdles to negotiate with dubious short-term outcomes to clear the backlog.

Based on the VBA Under Secretary’s “transformation” power point plan, the transition is fraught with assumptions and complex adjustments that would be a stretch to implement by EOY 2013, much less December 2012.

Who’s kidding whom?

Why the sudden rush to rollout the “transformation” that will be disruptive and in all likelihood produce minimal improvements?

No offense intended, but based on available data and past performance, what leads VBA leadership to this conclusion?

Unfortunately, this notion challenges credulity.

To determine if this organizational shake-up has a legitimate prospect of succeeding, an obligatory inspection of the administration’s workload statistics is necessary. Even a “quick and dirty” assessment of the claims backlog and timeliness data reveals that the “transformation” will be required to overcome fundamental workload considerations not addressed in the “transformation” plan.

On August 27, 2012, the FEDERAL TIMES noted that since 2001, “…claims received by VA have jumped 94 percent, with 1.3 million claims received in fiscal 2011. VA records also show the number of people involved in processing claims has risen 97 percent over the same period.”

Also, VBA processing time in 2001 was 181 days that today has soared to over 250 days. Claims accuracy has also slipped 4 percent over the same period. In fact, total pending claims have climbed from an average of 36 percent in 2009 to an average of 64 percent today.

The bottom line is that a serious mismatch exists between the number of veterans seeking VA benefits and VBA’s ability to adjudicate the growing number of claims in the pipeline.

Since VBA leadership cannot manage the increased pace of demand with available resources, they frantically huddled and called for a misdirection play. Hence was born the power point “transformation” replete with “bells and whistles” all rolled into a 2015 completion horizon.

Why should the congressional Authorizing or Appropriating Committees take this VA plan seriously?

VBA continues to fumble critical issues such as their 2009 comprehensive effort to revise the disability rating schedule. This schedule uses criteria to assign degree of work disability that today, is not consistent with changes in medicine or the labor market.

The GAO recently addressed this matter (GAO-12-846, Sept 10, 2012) and stated, “As of July 2012, VA is over 12 months behind in revising criteria for the first categories of impairment. In addition, VA has not developed its capacity to produce timely research on the impact of impairments on earnings. Moreover, VA lacks a complete plan—with specific activities and updated time frames—for conducting earnings loss and related studies. VA does not have a written strategy to address the possible effects that revisions may have on agency operations, including impacts on an already strained claims workload [emphasis added].

So for decades, VA has sought to revise the disability-rating schedule but evidently does not have the political will to engage and revise the disability-rating schedule.

At the risk of being sans-culotte, if GAO states that VA is 12 months behind in revising the rating schedule, lacks a complete plan, and does not have a written strategy, why in the world would anyone have a high degree of confidence that VBA’s “transformation” has a “snowball’s chance in Hades” of successfully executing the plan?

Now that VBA intends to accelerate the rollout, the outcome is in serious doubt.

If there is any good news in the SYNCRONIZING VBA’s TRANSFORMATION plan, it is overshadowed by the obvious trend of increasing workload coupled with marginal improved processing timeliness. Hastening the “transformation” kickoff date will effectively scuttle the goal to achieve inventory reduction.

Instead of “kicking the can down the road”, now VBA has opted for the “bum’s rush” approach and speeding up the rollout. Predictably, the “transformation” execution will ill-serve veterans and RO employees by disrupting the adjudication pipeline due to this poorly planned organizational shift that yields dubious results.

Even if one assumes the SYNCRONIZING VBA’s TRANSFORMATION has some rudimentary benefits, what overriding value is there to force this program on line a year earlier than planned if it is indeed disruptive?

What new information has VBA stumbled upon that requires a questionable “transformation” to be “fast-tracked” commencing between the November 6th presidential election and Inauguration Day?

Maybe the working theory is that once the “transformation” starts, it cannot be stopped.  Whatever the rationale, there are dark clouds on the VBA horizon.

Mr. Poteet is a former Army gunship pilot with two tours in the Republic of Vietnam; a registered lobbyist for the Veterans of Foreign Wars;Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs; Director of three VA Regional Offices; a VA Medical Center Director; and Executive Director of the President’s  Task Force To Improve Health care Delivery For Our Nation’s Veterans. He resides in central Texas with his wife Miriam.


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