Witness Testimony of Mr. Danny G.I. Pummill, Director, Veterans Benefits Administration/Department of Defense Program Office
DANNY G. I. PUMMILL
DIRECTOR, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION /
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE PROGRAM OFFICE
VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION (VBA),
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS (VA)
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
September 20, 2012
Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and Members of the Subcommittee,
I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the redesign of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) support to the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). In July, 2012, President Obama announced a redesign of TAP to help our separating service members successfully transition to the civilian workforce, start a business, or pursue higher education. My testimony will summarize legacy TAP, our redesign efforts, and our implementation of redesigned TAP.
TAP is conducted under the auspices of a Memorandum of Understanding between VA and the Departments of Labor (DOL), Defense (DoD), and Homeland Security. The Departments work together to schedule briefings and classes on military bases to assist Service members as they prepare to transition from active military service. Quarterly meetings among the agencies are held to oversee the operations of the program and to plan enhancements. VA TAP briefings are provided by trained military services coordinators (MSCs) from our regional offices on military installations in the United States and Puerto Rico. TAP briefings are also provided to Service members stationed outside the United States by overseas MSCs who are temporarily assigned in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, Okinawa, Japan and Korea. In addition, VA provides transition assistance briefings to demobilizing Reserve and National Guard members. These briefings are typically held at the reserve component’s home station after completion of a deployment.
Attendance at VA TAP briefings has been voluntary, and participation has been at the discretion of each Military Service. In fiscal year (FY) 2009, VA provided 3,523 TAP briefings for 134,626 attendees, while 276,615 Service members separated from active duty status according to the Defense Manpower Data Center. In FY 2010, 144,207 attendees participated in 3,918 TAP briefings, while 268,918 Service members separated. In FY 2011, 147,718 attendees took part in 3,470 briefings, while 273,000 Service members separated.
VA believes that it is in Service members’ and their families’ best interests to acquire a good understanding of Federal and state benefits that could impact their life, home, and work. Service members who attend a TAP briefing are made aware of an array of VA benefits and services that can help ease their transition from the military to civilian life. Service members are also advised of required supporting documentation and the process to apply for various benefits. Upon request, counseling services are provided by professional staff from VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program. Information on VA benefits is predominately delivered in a non-interactive lecture format.
In the current labor market, which places a premium on job-ready skills and work experiences, knowledge of Federal and state benefits is critical to a successful transition from military to civilian life. As demonstrated by unemployment rates from DOL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, Service members often find that embarking on successful and productive post-military careers is very challenging. In June 2011, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 Veterans was 13.3 percent. With a renewed focus on hiring Veterans in the public and private sectors, the unemployment rate for this cohort improved to less than ten percent in June 2012. However, VA and other stakeholders recognize that Service members, particularly younger Service members completing their first enlistment, would benefit from a more tailored TAP with a focus on employment assistance.
In August 2011, the President directed DoD and VA to lead the Veterans Employment Initiative (VEI) Task Force and provide recommendations to maximize the career readiness of all Service members. The Task Force members met weekly for five months. In late 2011, the members recommended a comprehensive training and service-delivery model with an end-goal of strengthening the transition of Service members from military to civilian status. The proposed model consisted of four key features: career readiness standards; transition assistance integrated into the military life cycle; an outcome-based training curriculum; and an end-of-military-career event.
In early 2012, an interagency Executive Steering Committee was established to develop implementation strategies for the VEI Task Force principal recommendations. The core outcome-based training curriculum, entitled Transition Goals, Planning, and Success (GPS), consists of five days of instruction provided by the military services, DOL, and VA. In addition to the core Transition GPS, two-day electives are offered for three tracks– education, technical training, and entrepreneurship. Prior to separation, a Service member will participate in an end-of-military-career event where a designated official will certify that Transition GPS requirements have been fulfilled.
The VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 was enacted in November, 2011. It required VA, DOL, and DoD to expand current programs to ensure a seamless post-military transition for Service members. This legislation, in addition to the steps being taken by the VEI Task Force, aggressively addressed the high unemployment rate of Post-9/11 Veterans through a multitude of comprehensive provisions, including improvements to TAP, retraining opportunities for unemployed Veterans, and employer tax credits for hiring unemployed Veterans. In addition, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act mandated participation in previously voluntary portions of TAP by November 21, 2012, as well as pre-separation counseling, a VA briefing, and DOL’s Employment Workshop.
VA Responsibilities – Redesigned TAP
VA’s portion of the Transition GPS includes four hours of interactive instruction, which replaces the previous lecture and slide-deck presentation. The new format allocates one hour to VA education benefits and three hours to all other VA benefits and services. With assistance from the Department of Education (ED), a VA project team completely revised the current VA briefing, creating an interactive curriculum that incorporates adult-learning principles. This revision reduced the overwhelming number of slides by over 50 percent. Rather than viewing a static and lengthy slide presentation, Service members will now participate in interactive activities that teach them how to review, apply for, and receive the benefits and services they have earned. To ensure that Service members have access to all the information they need, VA has also developed new user-friendly classroom reference materials to augment this curriculum, including the VA Benefits Reference Guide, which highlights each benefit or group of benefits, outlines eligibility requirements, and provides actionable steps to access the specific benefit. The VA Benefits Reference Guide also provides web addresses and information on other resources to assist Service members in making the most informed decision when choosing their benefit options. VA personnel have delivered TAP briefings in various venues, which are not always conducive to adult learning. Auditoriums and meeting spaces on military bases that can accommodate hundreds of Service members are commonly used. In the newly designed TAP program, the number of Service members attending the four-hour VA benefits module generally will be 50 maximum Service members to one VA instructor.
VA was also tasked to lead development and implementation of the two-day technical training track, during which time Service members are provided advice on different technical fields as potential career choices. In addition, VA is providing assistance to other agencies to develop the other two tracks, education and entrepreneurship, to ensure pertinent VA benefits information is included. All of the two-day elective tracks and the end-of-military-career event are currently under development. The number of students permitted to attend the two-day technical training track has been limited to 50 students per instructor. A minimum student load has not been finalized and will depend on the number of Service members who express an interest in attending.
In addition, VA is in the process of developing a virtual version of VA’s portion of TAP to be available in different eLearning modalities. Virtual briefings will mirror the classroom environment and will be used by Service members where appropriate. VA is actively collaborating with DoD to define functional requirements for this virtual option. An interagency working group has proposed guiding principles for development of the virtual TAP curriculum to meet the needs of separating Service members.
Successful implementation of the redesigned TAP is critical to providing service members with the tools required for successful transition. VA continues to assess the number of Service members who will participate and the resources required to provide an optimum delivery of services to military personnel and their families. VA has met with DOL officials to review the delivery of its portion of TAP by contractors and to determine if it is feasible, as well as legally and fiscally permissible to acquire the services of DOL for the delivery of the VA portion of TAP. VA expects to complete its analysis in the next 60 days.
VA will continue to work with Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) located on or near military installations. VA informs Service members that VSOs are independent of VA and can provide expert advice when they are interested in applying for VA benefits. The VA Benefits Reference Guide given to each Service member contains a link to information on VSO representatives in a specific geographic area. VA values the relationship we have with our VSO partners and the assistance they provide. We look forward to continuing this positive relationship that results in best outcomes and improved services for our Service members and Veterans.
Demand-Driven Planning Factors
The historical annual demand for VA TAP briefings has averaged just over 142,000 attendees between FY 2009 and FY 2011. Based on the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, VA is now required to provide a TAP briefing to all separating Service members. As such, VA’s planning model to implement the VOW Act and VEI Task Force requirements is demand-driven, using total separation numbers provided by the Military Services. For resource modeling purposes, VA currently projects that approximately 307,000 Service members will separate, demobilize, or deactivate per year for the next four years. The Military Services have provided VA with projected transitioning Service members at all military installations in the United States and at overseas locations. For resource modeling, VA may need to have a presence 251 military bases, with VA staffing levels driven by the projected demand at each site. VA will continue to work with the Services throughout implementation to refine our resource requirements.
Prior to any pilot being conducted, VA staff accompanied DoD personnel in performing site assessments to determine initial operational capabilities. During these site visits, interagency teams met with local military installation personnel to discuss infrastructure and operational requirements that needed to be in place for the pilot. The redesigned VA TAP has been piloted at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, FL; Naval Station Norfolk, VA; Randolph Air Force Base San Antonio, TX; United States Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, CA; and Army Fort Sill, OK. In addition, VA conducted pilots with the Guard and Reserve components to include Fort Hood, TX, for the Army Reserve and Camp Shelby, MS, for the Army National Guard.
An interagency evaluation team consisting of representatives from DoD, the Military Services, VA, DOL, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) were present at pilot sites to observe and provide constructive feedback that will be used to improve the VA TAP session. Feedback indicated that VA met its stated learning objectives for each training module, but several comments indicated that facilitators need to have an increased awareness to integrate their portion of TAP into the overall GPS curriculum to ensure a well-coordinated delivery and to minimize duplication of effort.
In addition to feedback from the evaluation teams, an interagency project team developed a survey to track attendance and customer feedback from both the pilots and the full TAP program deployment. This tool provides VA with valuable information, including participation rates, customer satisfaction data, and qualitative feedback, which will help VA to better meet the needs of transitioning Service members. VA, DoD, and our other agencies are reviewing data from the survey at the pilot locations to continue making improvements.
Implementation of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act and VEI Task Force requirements will occur using a sequential, phased-in approach. Phase 1 will implement the VOW Act by November 21, 2012; Phase 2 will implement Transition GPS, and Phase 3 will implement other VEI Task Force recommendations. VA is committed to taking action on overarching implementation strategies and will complete key operational and programmatic goals through multi-agency collaborative efforts with DoD, Military Services, DOL, ED, and SBA.
During Phase 1, which focuses on implementation of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, VA will expand the previously optional four-hour VA TAP briefing to a mandatory VA benefits briefing with a ratio of 50 attendees to one instructor. VA will use feedback from pilot sites and interagency evaluation teams to improve our training. During Phase 1, VA will work with DoD to enhance its online version of TAP. These web-based formats will allow Veterans as well as Service members in remote locations to go back and review the latest information concerning VA benefits and services.
During Phase 2, which centers on implementing the Transition GPS, VA will develop the curriculum for the optional technical training track, and will assist DoD and SBA with curriculum development for the education and entrepreneurship tracks. VA will provide support to our agency partners with the implementation of the full VEI Task Force recommended curriculum. In addition, VA will continue to assess and improve the delivery of TAP information deployed in Phase 1.
Phase 3 will institutionalize VEI Task Force components of the redesigned TAP. VA will assist DoD and the Military Services in implementing other VEI Task Force recommendations, including a capstone event prior to a Service member’s transition to verify and enhance transition services. VA will also assist with the implementation of a military life cycle transition model to incorporate preparation for Service members’ career transition throughout their military service.
VA is proud of our continuing role in the transition of Service members from military to civilian life and seeks to continually improve the quality and breadth of our outreach efforts to active duty, Reserve, and National Guard members. VA has aggressively piloted its revised benefit briefings, developed implementation plans for the newly designed TAP, and is excited about the opportunities it provides to our Service members and their families. VA fully supports the Administration and Congressional efforts to ensure that transitioning Service members are ready for employment or education upon separation.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other Members of the Subcommittee may have.