Veterans Affairs ramps up efforts for post-pandemic help

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The American Rescue Plan law directed $17 billion in new money towards veterans. For how the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to use that money, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the acting VA Undersecretary for benefits, Tom Murphy.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Murphy, good to have you on.

Tom Murphy: Thank you, Tom. Nice to be here today. Thank you.

Tom Temin: And this is something of a little-known or widely-overlooked provision in that bill, which of course ran to more than $1 trillion, but $17 billion for VBA – what are you planning to do here?

Tom Murphy: Well, there’s significant provisions in that bill to drive quality health care, and much needed economic relief. It gives us the resources we need to push veterans claims through and get them done at times when veterans are needing that more than ever. It also modernizes our supply system. And it’s targeted at decreasing appeals at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

Tom Temin: Yeah, the backlogs for hearings and appeals on some of those benefits ebbs and flows – what’s the situation right now?

Tom Murphy: Well, the backlog is up right now because of COVID and what’s happened over the last year-and-a-half since last March. But we’ve peaked on it. And we’re going back down the other side, and I got to get the plug in now: Our medical providers are open, and we’re waiting for veterans to come in and get their medical examinations done so we can complete your disability claim.

Tom Temin: Got it. And so the $17 billion gives you people to help process claims?

Tom Murphy: It also gives us great targeted dollars – $100 million in overtime so that I can process claims as demand increases, and it gives me $150 million to go in and scan the records of all living veterans as well as records like ship log unit movements, etc. The idea being that as we get to the end of this pandemic, and before we have any other crisis, everything is in a digital form and easily accessible when veterans come to VA.

Tom Temin: Got it, because there have been some new benefits programs in recent years like the Blue Water from Vietnam era. And is that part of what you’ll help kind of speed along there?

Tom Murphy: That’s absolutely the case. Blue Water Navy is tied specifically to ships’ registries and ships’ logs and the digitization of those makes it easy for us to go in and access, quickly make decisions and provide benefits to veterans when needed.

Tom Temin: You can imagine a captain 50 years ago wondering, “do I really need to make this log entry today? I’m busy.” But here it is coming up and someone needs that log now all these years later.

Tom Murphy: Fortunately, the Navy is very religious and very particular with that. They did ship sightings and ships locations into their log multiple points per day. And here we are decades later. And we’re able to use that to take care of veterans.

Tom Temin: And what about pension claims? Is that part of the speed up here also?

Tom Murphy: Absolutely. We process them separately because of the uniqueness of the claim. But the benefits that I’m talking about and the things that we’re doing are going to drive what’s happening in the pension world and speed that process up as well.

Tom Temin: And on the applications for, say disability and disability appeals hearings, are those yet back in person? Or is this still happening in a telephonic way or a video virtual way? What’s the status right now?

Tom Murphy: VBA coming into the pandemic had almost all of our employees operating virtually through telework at least part of their work week. So when we send everybody home and we shut down when the virus hits, we very quickly pivoted. It took us about two weeks time to get all the computers done to get everybody positioned over. And we’ve had our best, most productive days in the month following the shutdown from the pandemic because we were positioned to go in and switch digitally. And what happened then is our backlogs started building because the available work dried up because we didn’t have veterans coming in to do medical appointments anymore, which was the right thing to do. So we protected the date for that veteran to allow them to opt at some point in the future when they feel safe to come in, complete their examination. And then we would make their rating decision for them at that time.

Tom Temin: Got it. And so it sounds like you’re saying or implying possibly that continuing with video and otherwise telephonic methods of doing these hearings, is so productive. And I imagine the veterans preferred because they don’t have to go somewhere to have that hearing. It might be something you would continue in the foreseeable future.

Tom Murphy: Oh, absolutely. We finally figured out a way – we’d been forced into the situation, but we figured out a way to contact the veteran, to communicate with the veteran and deliver services and benefits in the way the veteran is expecting. Most veterans expect to be able to pick up their smartphone, hit a button and be able to communicate and do something with VA. Well, COVID has forced us to do exactly that. And it’s made us open up new avenues to communicate and do [Acceptable Clinical Evidence] exams where you view medical evidence to do telehealth, where you video with a doctor to have your evaluation completed. And it allows us to process that veteran’s claim to deliver the services and benefits they’re looking for, without the veteran ever having to come into one of our facilities.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Tom Murphy, acting Veterans Affairs undersecretary for benefits. And there’s also a new program, I guess, also under the American Rescue Plan called Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance Program, VRRAP, if I’m pronouncing it right. Tell us about that one.

Tom Murphy: This is a great program targeted at veterans that are unemployed as a result of COVID – $386 million that provides employee assistance for certain unemployed veterans to enter high demand occupations. There’s a list provided by the Department of Labor. It’s published on VA’s website at benefits.va.gov, which will outline those specific jobs. There’s also a list that tells you these are the institutions that we’ll provide for. So here’s the details: It’s available to veterans between 22 and 67 years old; up to 12 months we pay tuition fees, a monthly housing allowance; and then there’s job placement at the end of the program. This is a great program targeted at those that are most affected by COVID.

Tom Temin: And what are some of the top in-demand types of jobs or fields that are attracting veterans these days?

Tom Murphy: Oh, there’s teachers, there’s computer programmers, there’s network managers, it’s a really long, very broad list. And it was much broader than you might think. The big thing on this one here, and this is the really great takeaway: We sit you down with a program with an institution that’s specifically targeted to place you in a job. And we pre-screen these schools, so that we know that they can provide the services for the veterans when they complete it. And there’s even an incentive at the end, for the institution to place you in a position employed before we close out the program. This is a great package that targets just the right population.

Tom Temin: And if the infrastructure bill, in some form were to pass that would create a lot of construction jobs, presumably. Is there a tie in between this program, the VRRAP, and construction?

Tom Murphy: Construction is a wide open hot market, and absolutely on the high demand list. So yes.

Tom Temin: Alright, so you go from one type of hardhat in the military to another one on a construction site.

Tom Murphy: Yes, that’s absolutely true. And it’s very varied. It’s very wide that resources are available in a very broad spectrum of programs. Some people want to be outside working construction, other people want to be at a computer terminal. And this program is targeted at all of them.

Tom Temin: Got it. And then there’s one other provision I’m reading about in the American rescue plan that relates to educational benefits, closing the 90-10 loophole to protect the integrity of the GI Bill – explain that one.

Tom Murphy: We want to make sure that a veteran goes in and gets a quality education, and not attend a school or a program that’s simply designed to push veterans through. And we want the veteran to go in to use these benefits that they’ve earned through their service, and be able to better themselves and their life and their family. So we’ve put some provisions in place that target just that. And it narrows the field of all available, higher level institutions. But it makes sure that when you attend one, you’re getting a quality education, that’s going to be good for you and your family down the road.

Tom Temin: Got it. And now of course, the president has ordered the troops home from Afghanistan, which kind of completes having troops overseas. So you’re going to get some veterans, when they muster out of the military from that group. And that kind of changes the picture since there’s no active shooting activity right now that the military is involved in down the line that will affect the tenor and flavor of the veterans population. Are you looking ahead towards the next five, 10 years in that regard?

Tom Murphy: Oh, absolutely. But there’s something you got to keep in mind. We train like we fight. The American military trains very hard and trains very realistically. So while we certainly see more injuries, resulting of combat, we see it in peacetime as well. So the VA is there in peacetime and wartime and we just like to take care of veterans.

Tom Temin: All right, anything else we need to know about the American Rescue Plan as it relates to VA?

Tom Murphy: I’m going to take a chance to hit once again, I need you to come in and get your medical examination if you filed a claim for us. We made it safe for veterans to elect not to come in and complete your examinations. However, the world is opening up, our medical facilities are safe. We have a large population of vaccinated veterans. Come in today, schedule your examination, help us complete your rating decision.

Tom Temin: Tom Murphy is acting Veterans Affairs undersecretary for benefits. Thanks so much for joining me.

Tom Murphy: Thank you, Tom. You have a great day.

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