The Department of Veterans Affairs’ new permanent director for benefits is preparing the agency for another record-breaking year for processing claims.
The Veterans Benefits Administration set a record last fiscal year, when it completed over 1.7 million benefits claims. But VBA so far in fiscal 2023 is seeing a 31% increase in the volume of new claims, compared to the same period last year.
Under Secretary for Benefits, Joshua Jacobs told reporters on Thursday that VBA is preparing to process more claims this year than in years prior through a combination of “aggressive hiring” and automation tools.
“That means more veterans and their families will receive an extra bit of financial stability. Many will receive it when they may need it most,” Jacobs said.
The Senate confirmed Jacobs on Wednesday to serve as the permanent under secretary for benefits. He had previously been serving in the role in an acting capacity.
This marks the first time since 2014 that the VA has Senate-confirmed leadership at the Veterans Benefits Administration, Veterans Health Administration, and the National Cemetery Administration.
VBA’s total workforce is now 28,000 employees, its largest workforce ever. The agency’s workforce grew by 15% over the past year and a half — its highest growth rate ever.
“Employees are increasing productivity. They are delivering more benefits per person than ever before. And they’re doing that, while the total amount of claims is increasing,” Jacobs said.
VBA, so far in fiscal 2023, has completed 14% more claims than in the same period last year.
Jacobs said the agency last week completed more than 9,000 claims in a single day. That’s the most claims VBA has ever been able to process in a day. The agency has seen nearly 40 days where it’s been able to process more than 8,000 claims.
VBA held hiring fairs across eight regional offices over the past few months, and made nearly 1,100 same-day job offers.
Jacobs said VBA’s average time-to-hire is around 80 days, but is taking steps to streamline the onboarding steps prospective hires must complete before starting work.
“We’re continuing to streamline and improve the process. And our ability to provide same-day hires has been absolutely phenomenal. [We’re] still pushing very hard to keep shrinking that process,” he said.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said time-to-hire and onboarding are “really important metrics for us,” and said the agency is working on a public dashboard to track its hiring performance.
“The same way we’re putting out that PACT Act performance dashboard, we’ll be looking at some kind of similar set of regular measurements that we’ll make public,” McDonough said.
McDonough said that, consistent with a call by the Office of Management and Budget to increase in-office work across the federal workforce, the VA is “working very closely with our leaders, our supervisors here in the National Capital Region, to make sure that we are meeting and leading on the standards that OMB has called for.”
“Our personnel [at] VHA, VBA, NCA are so productive, we are going to make sure that they can continue to operate the way they’re operating now,” he added.
Jacobs said VBA employees are generally complying with the Office of Personnel Management’s requirement of being in the office at least two days a pay period.
“What we’ve demonstrated as an organization over the last two years is we’ve been able to increase production and increase productivity, notwithstanding the challenges associated with the very quick pivot to this largely virtual operation. And so I’m confident that the team will continue to produce, no matter what happens in the future,” he said.
Jacobs said VBA’s aggressive hiring allows the agency to manage its workload. The agency’s backlog remains under 27% of the total inventory at 213,000 claims. VBA has a total claims inventory of 795,594.
Veterans filed over 500,000 claims for toxic exposure-related conditions under the PACT Act, which expands VA health care and benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service. VBA has completed more than 241,000 of these claims so far, and has awarded over $1 billion in benefits.
The VBA this week is also sending out customer experience surveys to veterans who participate in the disability compensation process.
Jacobs said VBA is going to work with VA’s Veterans Experience Office to “turn these key veteran insights into tangible actions that improve the veteran experience.”
The survey contains 13 questions that ask, among other things, about a veteran’s filing experience and the level of trust veterans had throughout that process.
“The goal here is to take that information and identify both the pain points, and the moments that matter, so that we can use that information to drive actionable improvements to build trust, because we know that VBA in the claims process is often the first point that a veteran engages with the department,” Jacobs said.
VBA is looking at ways it can protect its employees from burnout.
“We can provide the support that our employees need and make sure that at the end of the day, the veterans we care for get the benefits that they’ve earned,” Jacobs said.
To supplement its hiring efforts, the VBA is also adopting automated decision support tools to keep its workforce handling a record volume of claims.
VBA launched an automation pilot in January 2022 through its Office of Automated Benefit Delivery, an initiative that has the potential to dramatically reduce the time it takes to process an individual claim.
The pilot is processing certain claims within a day or two, while the traditional method of processing these claims currently takes well over 100 days, on average.
“We’re continuing to push very, very hard to hire more new VA employees. But the promise of the automated decision support Technology is that we can help our employees deliver more benefits to more veterans more equitably, and accurately and consistently than ever before,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said VBA sees additional opportunities for automation to help its workforce process a record number of claims.
“There’s, as you would expect, a tension between the need to continue to innovate, and expand the aperture of the number of employees who can use this technology, while also dealing with the near-term immediate needs to produce decisions for veterans right away,” he said.