Lawmakers, veterans support organizations pitch new VA administration for education, employment

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The Veterans Readiness and Employment (VR&E) program has been struggling with a number of challenges for years. Two plans to create an updated case management system have failed since 2015, with a total cost of $26 million, and the contract for the third attempt isn’t expected until March. VR&E counselors are understaffed and undertrained. The program lacks...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Veterans Readiness and Employment (VR&E) program has been struggling with a number of challenges for years. Two plans to create an updated case management system have failed since 2015, with a total cost of $26 million, and the contract for the third attempt isn’t expected until March. VR&E counselors are understaffed and undertrained. The program lacks data on outcomes for veterans, especially those who leave the program unfinished. Too few veterans are being educated on the benefits available to them, and some of those benefits are too difficult to qualify for. That’s why some members of Congress and Veterans Support Organizations think a fourth administration within the Department of Veterans Affairs is necessary to add focus on transition, employment and education.

Currently, VR&E falls under the purview of the Veterans Benefits Administration. But Shane Liermann, deputy national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said it too frequently takes a backseat to other priorities for VBA.

“The undersecretary for benefits is going to focus generally on claims benefits appeals, the backlog. The only time that they’re getting involved with the VR&E and education issues is when there’s a problem,” Liermann said during a Sept. 15 hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. “So that’s why if you separate them out, you’re actually going to do three things: You’re going to one, release a burden off the undersecretary of benefits, to not have to oversee and manage yet additional programs. Two, you’re going to provide the oversight and accountability required for education and VR&E services. And three, you’re going to improve this for disabled veterans using the system, not just for education and vocational rehab, but also for claims, decisions and appeals because they’ll be able to focus. So I think those three things can be achieved if there is a fourth administration.”

And he’s not alone in thinking this. Subcommittee Chairman Mike Levin (D-Calif.), along with Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), introduced a bill last year to create an Economic Opportunity and Transition Administration under VA. The Veteran’s Education, Transition and Opportunity Prioritization Plan (VET OPP) Act passed the House in May of 2021, but has yet to be taken up by the Senate.

Educating veterans, counselors on benefits

Specializing in this way could also help provide focus on educating veterans and their VR&E counselors about the benefits available. For example, VR&E has five tracks for veterans to follow in their transition from military to civilian life: reemployment, rapid access to employment, self-employment, employment through long term services, and independent living services. But only 162 veterans are currently enrolled in the self-employment track, out of more than 88,000 in the VR&E program, according to Levin’s opening statement.

But Jeremy Villanueva, government affairs associate director for the Wounded Warrior Project, said he sees far more interest in that program: An internal survey of veterans in the Wounded Warrior Project found 38% of respondents said they wanted to own their own business.

That can be put down to a number of roadblocks. First, Villanueva said, is education about the benefits themselves.

“One of my reoccurring mantras that I always say, when it comes to almost any benefit that is underutilized, or issue that seems to come up before the various committees, is that there needs to be a better educational effort put out by the VA to let veterans know what benefits are available to them, and explain to them how they can get them,” he said. “Again, 38% of our warriors surveyed said that they wanted to own their own business, but by far the largest track that they used was the employment and education one because they did not understand that they could go out and put out their shingle or get started with their IT business or whatever business that they have with the help of VR&E.”

Another issue is eligibility; the self-employment track is only available to the most severely disabled veterans. But Villanueva said that sometimes the best solution for any veteran who needs accommodations is to be their own employer, and provide for those themselves. And many disabilities that require accommodations don’t rise to the level of having a “significant employment handicap,” which is quite often a subjective determination on the part of VR&E counselors. He said that veterans frequently don’t appeal their disability determinations because there’s no specific definition of “significant;” it’s up to the individual counselor, and VSOs trying to help with those appeals have to start by contacting the individual counselor to find out why the determination was made.

“They get a form that says ‘yes, you have an employment handicap, but you don’t have a serious employment handicap,’” Villanueva said. “What is the significant handicap? Because that is the difference between those two definitions, is just one word. They are the exact same in [Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations] and in the [United States Code], except for one word, and that is ‘significant.’ What is significant?”

This comes back to better training for the counselors so they’re able to help educate veterans about their benefits. Nick Pamperin, executive director for veteran readiness and employment at the Veterans Benefits Administration, told the committee that VR&E has begun providing counselors with “micro-learning sessions” on specific components like eligibility determination in addition to their initial training.

But without a standardized definition of “significant handicap,” those training sessions won’t address the subjective nature of the determination. And Liermann said counselors are still often unfamiliar with specific issues, like the self-employment track and other programs.

Reinforcing this, Julie Howell, associate legislative director for government relations at the Paralyzed Veterans of America, described her own experiences going through the VR&E program.

“I will always be grateful to my VR&E counselor; however, he made it as difficult as possible to engage with a program of study that I was hoping to engage with. He needed a lot of education around not only the program, my disability, and how those things worked with one another,” she said. “Often on the webpage, you read that they offer help with resume writing, or help finding jobs and help with placement. For me to even be approved in the program, I had to deliver a resume that would have gotten me a job, I had to prove that the program had a certain threshold for earnings, I had to show there was a demand for this program. So the resources that were supposed to be provided to me through the counselor actually became a benchmark for me to provide in order to be enrolled in the program. And so I found it relatively frustrating and stressful. And we hear that a lot from veterans.”

VR&E’s challenges

The VSO representatives also honed in on VR&E’s failure to develop a modernized case management system as another obstacle to veterans in the program. For example, Liermann said that when he was working at the Board of Veterans Appeals, often when veterans were appealing an entitlement for individual disability, when a veteran had attempted to go through the VR&E program but was denied due to the severity of their disabilities, their file didn’t include that information. So the file would have to go back to regional or local offices, extending the backlog. If that data were shared in real time, it would help process appeals faster.

VR&E also doesn’t have a way to track veterans’ outcomes in the program, especially those that drop out, and why. Levin pointed out that would be useful data to have for VR&E to identify other roadblocks that currently exist.

Lack of a modernized system also causes delays for the counselors themselves in getting the veterans the services they need. Counselors devoting most of their time to uploading information into outdated systems don’t the capacity to focus on the individual needs of the veterans they’re serving.

And counselors are already understaffed and overworked. Levin said that statute requires a ratio of one counselor per 125 veterans, but many offices are far beyond that. For example, he said in his district, the San Diego office currently has only 29 counselors, but a caseload of 4,414. Even if the office was fully staffed at 33 counselors, it would still fall above the required ratio.

Pamperin said that VBA is aware of the understaffing issue, and working to rectify it.

“We are in the process of getting ready to launch a national vocational counselor announcement on USAJobs, which will cut down on the hiring timeline to be able to bring on counselors,” he said.

Pamperin said VR&E currently has 89 vacancies in the field.

He also said VR&E is adding enhancements to e-VA, an electronic, artificial intelligence-based virtual assistant designed to help veterans digitize their paperwork and maintain up-to-date case notes. First, it will allow veterans and counselors to both send and sign paperwork electronically.

“While that might seem like not a big thing, we’re currently paper-based and reliant on the mail. If a veteran misses one signature spot that can delay. So I think that that is a large enhancement,” Pamperin said.

Following that, e-VA will be updated to allow documents to be directly uploaded from the platform to VA’s Veterans Benefits Management System. Not having to do that manually will save counselors even more time that they can then devote to veterans.

Finally, Pamperin said VR&E is hosting monthly town halls with counselors in order to solicit feedback and identify further challenges affecting the workforce.

 

 

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