VBA sees automation tools as ‘game-changer’ to keep up with record workload

The Department of Veterans Affairs broke a productivity record for processing benefits claims last year. But that’s just the start of what it needs to do.

The VA needs to keep breaking new records for claims processed, if it hopes to keep pace with a workload surge under the burn-pit toxic exposure legislation signed into law last summer.

The Veterans Benefits Administration completed a record high of 1.7 million total claims in fiscal 2022. VBA processed over 390,000 total claims for benefits in fiscal 2023 so far, about a 13% increase compared to where the same period last year.

At his confirmation hearing to permanently hold the job, acting Undersecretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs told the Senate VA Committee that the VBA has received more than 300,000  claims under the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, since the legislation was signed into law last August.

VBA, Jacobs added, expects to receive 700,000 PACT Act claims by the end of fiscal 2023. Those account for a portion of the approximately 5 million total claims the VBA will receive this fiscal year.

“The bottom line is we’re going to see a significant increase in the number of claims filed, because for the first time ever, the PACT Act is allowing us to provide benefits to generations of veterans who haven’t been able to get those benefits under law,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs, if confirmed, would permanently lead more than 25,000 Veterans Benefits Administration employees across 56 regional offices. The VBA disburses about $100 billion in benefits every year.

Jacobs previously served as deputy staff director for the committee, and worked for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) for nearly a decade.

“He knows full well how important a smoothly functioning VA is to the Americans who are relying on the benefits our nation promised them,” Murray said in her introduction of Jacobs at the hearing.

Jacobs said the VBA is undergoing “significant hiring expansion” to keep up with its workload. The agency last year hired 2,000 employees and is looking to hire an additional 1,900 staff with resources under the PACT Act.

VBA has onboarded about 65% of those 1,900 hires so far. The agency is also hosting job fairs across the country this month. The VBA this week hosted job fairs in St. Petersburg, Florida; Waco, Texas; and Los Angeles.

Jacobs said VBA made hundreds of job offers at those job fairs, and is continuing with its hiring and recruitment efforts. VBA, he added, is investing in training, so new employees can be brought up to speed quickly and make “timely and accurate decisions” on incoming claims.

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.

“I think this is the real potential game-changer as we move forward,” Jacobs said. “It’s going to give our employees more tools to make more decisions more quickly, accurately and equitably across the system. And I think it’ll help us ensure that we don’t have to linearly increase employee staffing to meet the growing demand.”

The VBA is also rolling out additional resources to help veterans understand what benefits they’re eligible for, and help them file their claims for free.

The VA last December held a week of National PACT Awareness events across the country, but Jacobs said more outreach is in the works.

“The claims process is confusing. It’s complicated, and at times it’s perceived as adversarial,” Jacobs said. “Veterans often don’t know about the process and when they don’t know about the process, and they don’t know what to look out for in terms of predatory actors, they can make the wrong decision.”

Jacobs said the VBA is focused on improving how it keeps veterans up to date on the status of their claim across the VA’s mobile app, the agency’s website and through letters it sends in the mail.

The agency, he added, is also looking to more plainly communicate to veterans about the status of their claims.

“These letters are written for lawyers, by lawyers. We’ve got to change that,” Jacobs said.

The VBA, Jacobs added, is also looking at ways to make the VBA claims process less burdensome for veterans and avoid sending veterans for a medical exam when it’s not necessary to further their claims

“We don’t want to send veterans out to get an exam if they don’t need it. That takes time away from their busy lives, and potentially results in them losing income,” Jacobs said.

As part of the VBA’s process improvements, Jacobs said the agency is addressing some of the bottlenecks for veterans’ military sexual trauma (MST) claims.

A VA inspector general report from 2021 estimated 57% of denied claims related to military sexual assault were not processed correctly between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2019

Jacobs said the VBA is addressing the VA IG office’s concerns and consolidating the number of agency employees who process these cases.

“They are quite complex. And oftentimes, it’s hard for the veteran to provide sufficient evidence for us to make a decision,” Jacobs said. “We’re working to ensure that we have our most qualified, experienced staff who can solely focus on MST.”

Committee Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) raised concerns over instances where the VBA has failed to deliver benefits to veterans in a timely manner or erroneously awarded a benefit that a veteran came to rely on.

“In some cases, a claim decision has taken so long that the benefits became meaningless, or the veteran had already passed away,” Moran said.

The committee also advanced nine bills for a Senate floor vote. Those bills include the VA CAREERS Act, which would set higher pay caps for VA doctors, podiatrists, optometrists, dentists and other health care providers. The legislation, in some cases, would permit some VA clinicians to receive above a $400,000 cap for all federal employees.

Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) plans to hold an upcoming hearing on the VA’s need for additional flexibilities.

Moran, however, reiterated concerns raised by the House Veterans Affairs Committee this week over limits to the agency’s implementation of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.

But the Merit Systems Protection Board, in a decision last month, ruled that an entire category of medical personnel — hybrid Title 38 employees — aren’t subject to the VA’s fast-track removal process under the law.

“If VA is going to have the flexibility, they need to hire the best people. They need the same flexibility to let employees go when they are not a good fit,” Moran said.

 

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