Just as it was getting backlogs under control and ramping up a whole new congressionally-mandated benefit program, along came the coronavirus. Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary Dr. Paul Lawrence joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for a situation report from the Veterans Benefits Administration.
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Tom Temin: Let’s begin with VBA itself. Are you teleworking? And what about the staff? What kind of percentages do you have of people in the office versus those that are teleworking?
Dr. Lawrence: Well, so we’re very lucky at VBA. Although it’s not so much luck, it was actually planned. We are telework enabled as an organization. I don’t have the real statistic, but based on sort of who I’m talking to, I gotta think it’s north of 90%. So we’re open for business. It’s not as usual, but we are processing benefits for veterans. So you know the message to anyone listening to this if you want to apply for benefits, there’s no time like the present and we’re here. Our offices are closed to the public, so a lot of it has to be done online at VA.gov or calling us at 1-800-827-1000. Many of our offices are closed based on the situation in the states. But we’re trying as hard as we can to adhere to the general guidance and reduce possible exposure of our employees as well as veterans in terms of the interaction. So no, we’re open.
Tom Temin: And 90% of VBA employees, just remind us about how many people that is.
Dr. Lawrence: So sure we’re about, 25,000. So that would be, let’s see about 22,500 if I’ve done the math right. We want to make sure folks are able to work because veterans earned these benefits. We want to honor our promises, and that’s what we’ve been doing. So again, we have a history of telework, so this is not unusual. We’re very fortunate here it VA, the CIO has been running tests for the last couple weeks to make sure we have the capacity, and so far we have a little bit more than enough capacity to make it all work for everybody.
Tom Temin: Yeah, my question was, people teleworking have access to the mission applications they need to actually get in the case management and benefits offerings. It’s not just email and those kinds of applications?
Dr. Lawrence: That’s right. This was all well thought out well before I showed up. It’s exactly the whole suite of things you could do in your office, you could do telework. There’s a little more security as you can log-on, as you could imagine. But that’s right, VBA, our mission is deliver benefits. We need to have the systems that enable us to do that if we’re gonna work remotely.
Tom Temin: Yesterday we had Dr Francis Collins, the director of the NIH on, and he had held a teleconference call with 29,000, people, which taxes just about any system. Have you had a need to communicate with everyone on mass like that? And how have you done it?
Dr. Lawrence: So we’ve been doing a lot of videos. And we run by business unit, so the business unit leaders are talking to their teams, and then the regional offices are talking to their team. So what we found is these more localize communications are more appropriate because the questions are fielded by the local leaders. I’ve not done a nationwide thing for our members because of the way our chain of command works. But on Wednesday of this week, I’m actually going to do a teletown hall for veterans in Georgia so they can sort of understand where we are and be aware of how we’re available to process their benefits.
Tom Temin: And that will be a two way type of thing, interactive and not just a broadcast to them?
Dr. Lawrence: That’s right. That’s exactly right, They’ll be invited. There’ll be a number. I wish I could talk to give it to the top of my head where they could call in fact, here if you let me. The number they can call in is 844-227-7557, and they’ll be able to ask questions by pushing star something or other. But that’s exactly right. It is a two way teleconference.
Tom Temin: Have you seen noticed any changes yet in the demand curve for services and products from the benefit side of VA so far in the crisis.
Dr. Lawrence: Not so far. It’s about tracking the way we would expect. And so what we are seeing some slowdown in mail, people are not mailings. Much that could be just whatever. But we know that historically from periods like this before that the demand for benefits will go up once we kind of play through this, that we are prepared for an increase in request for benefits that will be coming.
Tom Temin: So the telecom capacity that you have in the remote work capacity that you have, because Lord knows how long this is gonna go on, you feel prepared for a substantial uptick in demand?
Dr. Lawrence: That’s exactly right. So we’re prepared for an uptick in demand. Ironically, what we’re thinking about is what happens if the work dries up? What will our team do as veterans maybe don’t, you know, feel comfortable going to the mail or whatnot, right? We get a lot of help from the Veterans Service organizations. They’ve also sent their employees out of our offices and our teleworking too. So we get a lot of claims and applications through them. So we’re monitoring how they’re doing as well. So we’re part of a big ecosystem, if you will look supply chain. So we’re watching all over that. But no, we’re prepared for surges. Sort of like during the last time we talked with you about, you know, how we thought there would be a surge for blue water, Navy claims. So we’re able to handle this
Tom Temin: And tell me more about the veteran services organizations working within your offices? Is that something that’s an ongoing type of program?
Dr. Lawrence: Sure, this goes back to a long time. It’s very historic where they were invited in as part of their congressional charter, to be in our office to represent veterans they provide. And this is all for free to veterans. Help with completing the claims better understand their benefits, working with us to make sure we have the right materials for the process of claims. And so, you know, they’re really part of sort of what we talk about is one team, one mission, and so it’s really pretty good. But as you can imagine, they were worrying about the same thing we’re worrying about, which is exposure to the public. So several days before we started reducing public, they took a lot of their employees out of our offices for general safeguarding and follow the presidential guidance.
Tom Temin: Alright and VBA had a tiny part of the supplemental requests that that’s going through Congress for the operation of the federal government itself. I think that $46 billion bill. The bulk of that was going to VA via the health side. But VBA had a small request. What do you need that for? What you plan to do with it?
Dr. Lawrence: We will be continuing to telework enable everybody. There’s more software we need to better run the business. Believe it or not, there was hand sanitizer for all the kind of things you imagine. But don’t forget, I think our information technology group got a big request in there and a lot of what we do, they enable to make our systems work faster and better fix enhancements that make things like telework better. So we will benefit from some of the other money that’s going to our information technology group.
Tom Temin: And with so many people teleworking. Have you found help desk requests to the IT group fairly responsive?
Dr. Lawrence: Oh, yes. They put in a plan about a year ago to really provide excellent service to VBA. We’re pretty demanding customer, so you can imagine our systems don’t work and everything we’re doing is electronic processed electronically were not able to do work. So they pretty much I mean, they’re all veterans themselves. They pretty much understand what happens when something doesn’t work for an hour in terms of the claims we don’t process. That has really changed over the last year. A year ago, if you’d asked me this question, I probably would have had to be much more careful with my words. But now I’m a raving fan in terms of how they provide service.
Tom Temin: So the continuing work to drive down some of the backlogs you were facing when you came in that can continue also?
Dr. Lawrence: That’s right. That’s exactly right. Some of the work we have, while we have a backlog, those with claims over 125 days. We also have an inventory off 400,000 claims that we have lots of work to do. One of the things we’re kind of working through is the way you get a claim is you actually have to have a medical exam so we can validate the injuries or the disabilities that folks have, the conditions. Now, of course, those were done in person before all this folks are reluctant in both as the medical profession or the veteran to go now in person and have these exams. So we’re trying to do more, a lot more through telehealth, You know phone call or a Skype session or something. We can get these exams done that were flexing in new ways Where once were things were done in person. Now they’re being done electronically.
Tom Temin: Paul Lawrence is the VA Undersecretary for Benefits. Thanks so much for joining me.
Dr. Lawrence: Thanks Tom. And thanks again for caring about veterans.