Telling Congress that the Department of Veterans Affairs' workforce is "one of the most inexperienced" the agency has ever fielded, American Legion official Ian de Planque said that VA training programs must be dramatically improved.
"Training is one of the most important aspects of any plan for improvement in the VA at this time, especially in light of the fact that nearly half the VA workforce has less than three years of experience on the job," de Planque said in his written statement, testifying before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
Referring to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's stated goal of a 98 percent accuracy rate in processing veterans' disability claims, de Planque said training programs are "one of the most important tools to achieve that promise."
"The American Legion has encountered one of the greatest problems facing VA today - inconsistency," de Planque said. "Simply put, regardless of the intentions of the Central Office, how programs are implemented varies widely from region to region," de Planque said. "Each individual RO (regional office) functions more like a semi-autonomous fiefdom, and little consistency is apparent among the ROs as a whole."
Findings from the Legion's quality-review visits to VA medical facilities suggest that training needs are being met in some offices. But in others, "where the training is planned by individuals seeking merely to ‘check a box,' then the training suffers and is poorly tailored to the needs of the employees," de Planque told the subcommittee, chaired by Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y.
In his testimony, de Planque described the majority of VA operations as an "endless march toward reaching production requirements," and that the agency's "dysfunctional work credit system" is so numbers-driven that "the time needed for training is simply not available."
Time and again in its quality reviews of VA, The American Legion has documented cases where individual offices shortchange training programs in order to make sure their number of disability claims being processed does not drop.
De Planque told the subcommittee that the vast majority of VA employees interviewed by The American Legion over the past decade "have continually reinforced the frustration that meeting production numbers is the single-greatest factor in determining how they are able to do their jobs."
Regardless of how committed VA's Central Office is to the training of its employees, it still must rely on its regional offices to implement training programs in meaningful and consistent ways, de Planque told the subcommittee. Yet VA workers across the country commonly complain about "too little training on some topics, too much on other topics. Simply put, the training they are receiving does not match the target areas that are actually needed."
VA could make its training programs far more consistent by analyzing and using data collected from its own annual STAR (Systematic Technical Accuracy Review) program, according to The American Legion. STAR is already tracking patterns of inaccuracy in the processing of claims; VA could use that information to improve its training programs.
"For example, American Legion sampling of cases in quality-review visits indicates VA is having a problem rating mental-health claims consistently," de Planque said. "This could be identified and turned into a training program to increase consistency in these ratings.
"There is a gold mine of data on the common errors available, and VA would be foolish to ignore this valuable research tool to develop their training plans on both a national and regional level," de Planque said.
From today's testimony, it is obvious that The American Legion wants VA to focus on more quality for its training programs and make its claims processing less numbers-driven.
"By evaluating success or failure solely on the ability to meet a numerical benchmark, you fail to evaluate whether the quality component is being met," de Planque said. "VA needs a better mechanism."