Veterans' claims training behind schedule

Development of a Veterans Affairs Department training program designed to reduce errors in processing veterans' disability benefits is at least two years behind schedule, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

The program, which aims to improve VA's accuracy in processing veterans' disability and pension claims, was slated for completion in 2002, but will not be fully in place until 2004, said the report, "Veterans' Benefits: Training for Claims Processors Needs Evaluation" (GAO-01-601). Employees have too much work and not enough time to focus on training, according to the Veterans Benefits Administration.

"Regional offices face pressure not only to improve accuracy in claims processing, but also to reduce the backlog of pending claims," the report said. The agency reported errors in 41 percent of the claims it processed during fiscal 2000.

The Veterans Benefits Administration may not have enough time to train new employees before the current workforce retires, according to GAO. VA expects 25 percent of its current claims processors to retire in the next four years.

GAO also said the agency has no way of evaluating the usefulness of its training program, and that employees will most likely need more comprehensive, on-the-job training to learn how to accurately process veterans' claims.

GAO recommended that the Veterans Benefits Administration develop a plan for evaluating the success of its training program and explore ways to train more employees, such as through distance learning.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi agreed with GAO's recommendations and pledged to continue to focus on improving claims processing.

The agency has tried to improve its accuracy in claims processing in recent years. In 1995, the Veterans Benefits Administration published a report calling for the use of case management to speed the claims process. It has since reorganized its field offices into clusters that are intended to collaborate with one another. In 1997, VBA published a catalog of best practices in all of its business lines and developed a Web site to publish the results.

Last year, President Clinton signed the Veterans Claims Assistance Act of 2000. The law directs VA to inform veterans of the information necessary to complete their claims and to tell claimants when important medical or military service information is missing from their applications.

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