Legislative Division Deputy Director Ian de Planque presented the Legion's testimony. Craig Roberts

Legion testifies on VA Regional Office performance

At a June 2 congressional hearing, The American Legion focused its testimony on three areas that need substantial improvement at Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Offices (VAROs): accuracy, efficiency and transparency.

The Legion also echoed a major theme of its previous testimony: VA must force its bureaucratic culture to embrace the value of quality over quantity in the processing of veterans’ disability claims.

“The American Legion believes that accuracy should be paramount, coupled with the timeliness of delivering earned benefits,” Legion panelist Ian de Planque said in his written testimony before the House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. “A model Regional Office needs to be error-free and smooth of operation to deliver benefits, to those veterans who have earned them, on time, fairly and consistently.”

De Planque is deputy director of the Legion’s Legislative Division, and an Army National Guard veteran who served in Afghanistan.

Reminding the subcommittee that the Legion conducts annual site visits called the Regional Office Action Review (ROAR) to evaluate the quality of VA claims processing, de Planque explained that the program allows Legion national staff to collect information firsthand on the operating environments at VAROs, as well as the quality of adjudication on veterans’ claims for disability and other benefits.

Citing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s goal of determining all disability claims within 125 days and achieving a 98-percent accuracy rate by 2015, de Planque told Congress that VA was “moving backwards” in both areas. VA’s backlog of pending cases has risen from 180,000 to more than 290,000. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued May 18 estimates that VAROs are making mistakes in 23 percent of the disability claims they are processing.

VA accuracy in claims processing should be boosted by the new Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) being put into place. De Planque said that while VBMS will help, VA urgently needs to move away from a “culture of purely numbers-driven motivation.”

The efficiency of VAROs was questioned in a September 2009 report made by VA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Referring to a claims backlog of 11,099 cases over a one-year period, the report found that “inefficient VARO workload management caused avoidable processing delays averaging 187 days for a projected 10,046 (90.5 percent) of the 11,099 rating claims.”

De Planque continued that VAROs would improve their efficiency if they used more experienced workers to handle complicated claims, leaving the simpler ones to less seasoned employees. “VA needs to average a certain amount of time per claims to keep up with their inventory and ensure veterans are not getting left behind. With a little triage to help align the claims with the best route to servicing those claims, the average time for all claims can be reduced.”

Implementing such a change would not require “radical systemic overhaul requiring massive changes on behalf of VA, and taking years and studies to develop a plan to implement,” de Planque told the subcommittee. “This can be initiated with relative swiftness, and can start having immediate impact, and The American Legion urges VA to consider this addition, as they are already in the transformative process of installing VBMS in all offices.”

As a way to improve VA transparency, the Legion has suggested many times that the tracking of VARO accuracy rates should be added to the agency’s Monday-morning workload reports, and placed online for all the world to see.

“Put quite simply,” de Planque said, “it seems apparent VA is tracking what is important to VA, and that is solely the number of claims processed by each station and the number of claims received. If VA states they are committed to reducing error rates, they ought to start publishing those error rates in a place and manner easy to find and be understood.”

In his concluding remarks, de Planque emphasized that VA employees must be held more accountable for the quality of their work, and that easily avoidable errors made by VA employees often create serious problems for veterans and their families. “The lack of consequence for failure does not extend to the veteran on the street, however, and perhaps therein lies the greatest tragedy.”