A year in, VA’s Solid Start program is well, off to a solid start

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The Veterans Benefits Administration celebrated a year of its Solid Start program. A White House executive order from 2018, aimed at suicide prevention, requires VA to check in with new veterans personally by telephone. To see if they’re okay and to make sure they’re aware of VA benefits. With more on the program, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with VA’s principal deputy undersecretary for benefits, Margarita Devlin.

Interview transcript:

Margarita Devlin: The Solid Start program is a new program. And in fact, we are celebrating the one year anniversary of the program, because we just created it and deployed it in December of 2019. So we’re very excited to be able to talk about the successes of the Solid Start program in just its first year.

Tom Temin: And Solid Start requires that VBA call newly separated service members, I’m just looking at the website, three times during their first year of separation, just give us a sense of how many people join that newly separated workforce each year. And I guess multiplied times three, and that’s how many phone calls you have to make.

Margarita Devlin: Right. So let me give you a little bit of context. This is all part of our military to civilian transition process for our servicemembers and veterans. And there’s also a suicide prevention initiative. And when you think about what most people think when they think of transition, they think of the top class, right. So our service members who are going through their transition period will participate in a TAP class while they’re active duty. And then they separate, they get their DD214, and they become civilians. And what Solid Start does is it seeks to follow up with those individuals now that they are veterans, because what we heard from veterans after they discharged from the military is that while they were going through transition, it was like drinking water from a firehose. There was a lot of information coming at them, there were a lot of decisions to be made, a lot of planning steps to take. And it was just a lot for them to try to consume and remember everything about what VA has to offer. And really the transition where the rubber meets the road is after separation from the military. And that’s when sort of there was before solid start really no additional programming to keep going in that transition in terms of support from VA, unless the veteran came to us. So this is an innovative program that says, hey veterans you don’t have to come to us, we’re going to come to you in that first year after separation from the military. So we reach out to all the veterans after they separated at 90 days, six months, and then again at one year. And the purpose of these contacts first and foremost is to check in and see how they are doing with their transition. So that’s sort of how the conversation starts. The VA solid state representative will talk to the veteran and say how’s it going with your separation from military how’s your transition going? And from that conversation, really begin the interaction to have that solid start agent introduce information, benefits, services, that will be relevant to that veteran at that moment in his or her life. So when you think about how many people it’s really, we get a data feed from the Department of Defense, and it’s all veterans who transition out of the military. And that includes everybody, regardless of their character of discharge. So whether they have honorable, dishonorable, other than honorable, we get them all in this data feed. And we attempt to call all of them. Now, when we first created the program a year ago, we thought, Okay, how many veterans do we really believe will be answering the phone when we call, and we set a target for ourselves because we wanted to be able to really measure the success of these contacts. And so we set a target of 15%, one size. But what we found in the first fiscal year, so when you look at December through September, which was the end of the fiscal year, instead of 15%, we reached 56.6% of the veterans who answered the phone and engaged with our Solid Start agent.

Tom Temin: A couple of questions here. First of all, how many is it every year,

Margarita Devlin: We got over 123,000 in our data feed. We contacted just under 70,000 veterans.

Tom Temin: Got it. And the implication here, if I may say so is that the Defense Department doesn’t do a thorough job of maybe preparing servicemembers for their eventual veteran-ship.

Margarita Devlin: I wouldn’t say it that way. What I would suggest is this, that you’ve got a service member, and they’re in the military, and they are serving their mission. And so that’s their number one priority, right. So when you think about VA’s TAP class, we spend a whole day in the VA TAP class walking them through all of their benefits. But imagine sitting through a classroom experience. So we’ve taken how many weeks or months to turn you into a soldier at the beginning, right or a marine or a sailor, we take all this time to sort of convert you from a civilian into a military member. But then we expect you in a one day class to just sort of assimilate all this new information about what it’s like to become a civilian and use your VA benefits. So it’s not about how good of a job we’re doing. It’s about recognizing that no matter how much we teach them before separation, the real effects of the transition do not begin until after they get their DD 214 and they are living in that civilian environment. So that’s why what we found was the Solid Start program helps them to connect the dots between what they heard before separation, and what they now need to put into action in terms of using their benefits.

Tom Temin: And gosh a lot of questions here. From the VBA standpoint, what types of people, what sort of employees are capable of making these kinds of calls, because I imagine they can be sensitive?

Margarita Devlin: Sure. So what we did to start the program is we chose our highest caliber most experienced and high performing employees who were working in our call centers. And we picked from this cadre of individuals because they were very experienced across a broad array of VBA benefits, and some VHA benefits and NCA as well, so Memorial Affairs and healthcare as well. And what we did was we pulled them into a cohort and we trained them on how to initiate an open ended conversation, we train them on some of those sort of skills around having empathy and kind of a different kind of a listening skill that you would apply if you’re making an outbound call to a person versus receiving an inbound call from them. And then we equipped them with a scripting tool in the computer that helps them navigate to make sure they cover all of the benefits and services related to what that veteran is talking about in terms of what they need right now. So they might be talking, for example, about needing to establish health care or mental health, or they might even say I’ve been thinking about going into school, but I don’t really know where to start. And then we can send them to counseling to help them pick a career choice, education choice. So these employees, these high performing employees, were trained in those the broad array of all the VA benefits, to make sure they wouldn’t skip a beat on picking up on what that veteran needs. Also train them on state Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, because in addition to the federal VA benefits, a lot of states have ancillary benefits these veterans could take advantage of.

Tom Temin: I guess the artwork in all of this is that the calls have to cover all the bases. But yet, it has to sound natural, it has to be natural and genuine. Because I imagine the veterans could pick up on that if it’s not pretty quickly.

Margarita Devlin: Yes, and it is very natural. And that’s why the conversation is driven by what the veteran is saying is going on in their life right now. So rather than us just diving into, hey here’s an agenda of things we want to cover, the agents will start asking questions about what’s going on. The veteran might say, hey everything’s fine it’s all good, right. They’re trained and their scripting tool helps them with probing questions. Oh, okay great I’m glad to hear that, so how’s it going with employment? So they’ll ask them about employment, they might ask them if they’re in school, how that’s going. And so imagine if you just had sort of a friend, right, or a colleague, who were to pick up the phone and call you up and say, how’s it going, they might ask you some probing questions, and then you would have a really good conversation back and forth. That’s what the Solid Start representatives are trained to do.

Tom Temin: And some people that are less than honorably discharged are not eligible for all that the Veterans Affairs Department has to offer. How do you separate that one out, because that could be kind of an awkward call I imagine?

Margarita Devlin: It’s actually not awkward. We’ve trained them specifically on how to address the different characters of discharge. So with other than honorable there are certain circumstances in which we can provide certain benefits and health care services. So they are trained to decipher based on the veterans record, what can be provided now to that veteran. They also know how to advise the veteran if they want to go back to the Department of Defense to take a look at their character discharge to see if there are any upgrades that they could ask for with the Department of Defense. And then finally, if they’re not eligible for VA benefits, we do make sure that they are connected to community resources that are not necessarily in the VA system. And that way they can get services from some entities.

Tom Temin: And earlier you mentioned this suicide prevention aspect of this program, the Solid Start program, and do the phoners ever come across a situation where they might sense that there is a suicide risk? And do they have the means to vector that person into immediate care, because it could be a near crisis?

Margarita Devlin: They do. In fact, if the veteran is in crisis, and this has happened, if the veteran is in crisis at the moment that we call them, we connect them through a warm transfer to the crisis line. In fiscal year 2020, we did that 18 times. And that was when the representative called the veteran and in that moment they immediately or during the call at some point detected that that veteran was in crisis. And they were able to make that warm transfer, make sure they get the crisis line individual on the phone to provide immediate intervention.

Tom Temin: So you made something like 180,000 phone calls, right? You reach 70,000. So it’s 210,000 phone calls. Out of curiosity is it mostly reaching cell phones? Or does anybody coming out of the military even have a landline anymore?

Margarita Devlin: Yeah, I really can’t tell you whether they were cell phones or landlines, but it was over 123,000 that we got in our data feed of eligible veterans,. And of that number we contacted almost 70,000. So it wasn’t the two of those added together, the almost 70,000 was a component of the over 123,000 of eligible veterans. What we found too is early in the development of this program, because it is a suicide prevention initiative, we knew we needed to take care of our veterans who had already been diagnosed with a mental health condition, and make sure that they were connected to mental health care. So we prioritize any veteran who in their last year of military service had a mental health condition that they sought treatment for, we call them more quickly, and we prioritize them and we work to make sure that they are connected to mental health care. And I’ll tell you the percent, it was 56.6% of our veterans that answered the phone and we engage with when you take just a subset of the people who had the mental health appointment before discharge from military, their rate of acceptance of this call and working with us is even higher, it is 73.4% of those individuals that are engaging with us so that we can get them into VA health care and mental health care.

Tom Temin: And just a small technical question, you know, people get all sorts of junk calls, even on cell phones and landlines today, and often they are falsely but nevertheless identified Social Security or a bank or something. Apparently enough people thought this really was VA calling, does the call identify itself as coming from the Veterans Affairs Department?

Margarita Devlin: Yes, we have it set up so that the caller ID says Veterans Affairs. So when you see the call coming in, it’s clearly from us. Now I think there’s some cell phone or phone carrier providers that may not be transmitting that information. And we’re actually working on that, to make sure that every time we call the veteran, it shows on the caller ID Veterans Affairs. And the other thing too is that we send them an email before we’ve made that first phone call to let them know that we’re going to be calling and what phone number we’re calling from so that they’re expecting it. And more recently, we’ve also started including in the TAP class the expectation of this phone call. So when you’re sitting in your TAP class, and we’re talking to you about all your benefits, you also get told, hey by the way, when you leave the military, you’re going to get a phone call from VA, and they’re going to make sure you’re connected to all these veterans benefits, the programs called Solid Start, you’re going to want to take that phone call. And then after each phone call, we also make sure to follow it up with an email so that we can summarize for that veteran the things we covered. So whether we covered education benefits or health care, we will send them a quick email from the same representative that talked to them to say, Mr. Smith here’s just a recap of the things we covered, here’s the quick links if you want to go ahead and apply unless we took your application over the phone. And that way, you have all of that at a glance in your email. The message that I want to get out to veterans, take the call. If you see VA is calling and you see that on your caller ID take the call because we know you may be doing great, and you may not even need our help. But we want to have an opportunity to talk about what’s going on with you in your life in that first year after separation to make sure you don’t miss out on some benefits that you might not have really thought of that you might be entitled to and that might be beneficial in your life. So take the call and if we haven’t called you and you are in that first year after separation, call us because there’s a chance, maybe while you’re in the military, you didn’t update your phone number, we may not have the most recent number for you. And if you haven’t gotten that call, call us at 1-800-827-1000 and asked to be transferred to the solid start team. And if you’re after a year after separations, one of the things I worry about is we have a lot of veterans out there who have been out of the military for a long time and they might say well what about me, if you are not sure if you have VA benefits you might be entitled to, it doesn’t matter what era of service you served in, call us at that same number. We’ll walk you through what you might be eligible for.

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