VA has resources to tackle claims processing, expert says

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) currently has enough staff on board to improve its system for processing veterans' benefits claims, according to the head of an agency task force created to study the issue. "I must say that I think the VBA has the necessary resources right now to do the job," said Ret. Navy Vice Adm. Daniel L. Cooper, during a hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Cooper, who led a 14-member task force that looked at ways to improve the agency's dismal claims-processing record, said the agency "can't justify" asking for more people right now. Over the last three years, the Veterans Affairs Department has hired between 600 and 800 people each year to staff its benefits program, Cooper said. This year, the agency hired more than 1,100 employees to work on benefits--the largest increase in the VBA workforce since the Vietnam War. Cooper said VBA is not lacking when it comes to the quantity and quality of its employees. Rather, the agency needs to better organize people and resources. "The agency may have to move people around and readjust headquarters a little," to maximize the skills of its workforce, he said. The Veterans Benefits Administration's acting undersecretary for benefits intends to advise VA Secretary Anthony Principi on how to implement the recommendations later this month, VA spokesman Steve Westerfeld said. Westerfeld said that VA is pleased with the results of its massive hiring efforts, but will not know what kind of resources it will need, including staff, until the implementation plan is complete. During the 1990s, VBA's workload dramatically increased while its workforce stayed the same. New laws, including one that directs the agency to provide veterans with more help in gathering the documents necessary to file benefits claims, are severing veterans better than before but have also created more work for VBA employees, Cooper said. "The vast majority of VBA regional office employees have been executing an extremely difficult task to the best of their abilities," Cooper said. "For more than a decade, VBA employees have been dealing with a cycle of workload crises." The claims processing task force, which was launched last spring by Principi and included representatives of the VA, industry and veterans organizations, submitted its final report last month. The report criticized VBA for failing to provide its 57 regional offices with proper leadership, guidance and training in claims processing. It included 34 recommendations for improving the VA's claims process, ranging from providing better training to VBA employees to creating specialized regional offices focusing on one part of the overall claims process. VBA's claims-processing system has been repeatedly criticized in recent years as slow and inefficient. The agency has tried to improve its claims-processing accuracy by using case management techniques and by reorganizing its field offices into clusters meant to collaborate with one another. On average, it takes VBA 194 days to process a claim, which includes requests by veterans for disability compensation, pensions and survivors' benefits. There are more than 500,000 cases, not counting appeals, still pending in VBA's backlog. The agency hopes to eventually reduce those figures to 74 days and 250,000 cases, respectively.
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