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Witness Testimony of James R. Swartz, Jr., Decision Review Officer, Cleveland Veterans Benefits Administration Regional Office, and President, AFGE Local 2823, American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, and the AFGE National Veterans' Affairs

Dear Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney, Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on behalf of the American Federation of Government Employees and the AFGE National VA Council (hereinafter “AFGE”).  AFGE is the exclusive representative of Department of Veterans Affairs (Department) Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) employees who process disability claims. 

AFGE welcomes all opportunities to provide input into efforts to break the back of the backlog, and it is our view that these efforts cannot succeed without front line employee input. Our members work on every aspect of the claims process, and many AFGE members working at VBA are, like me, service-connected disabled veterans who have applied for VA benefits.  Quite simply, we know best which elements of the claims process work, or do not work.

We take great pride in our strong working relationship with veterans’ service organizations (VSO) on VBA issues and other matters, and our longstanding support for the Independent Budget.  In contrast, VBA continues to exclude AFGE from a meaningful role in key elements of the claims process including training, skills certification and performance measures.

While AFGE members have been directly involved in some of the current VBA pilot projects, we have had minimal or no input into others. For example, the Subcommittee asked for our views on the Veterans Benefit Management System (VBMS).  Other than a briefing earlier this year, we have had virtually no role in VBMS. The first phase of the VBMS pilot was implemented at the Providence RO, but only a handful of employees are working on it, and the Providence AFGE local was not given any role.  We were pleased to learn that the VBMS contractor communicates regularly with the employees assigned to the pilot.

We understand that the next phase of VBMS will take place at the Salt Lake City RO.  We hope AFGE will have a greater role in VBMS at the Salt Lake City site and during all future phases of the pilot.

As a service-connected disabled veteran, I especially appreciate this Subcommittee’s oversight of the claims process. I also faced long delays in getting my claim decided. It simply is not right for a veteran to wait 18 months for a claims decision.  Waiting two to three years is absolutely unacceptable.

However, as this Subcommittee has been advised on many occasions, there are no quick fixes to the claims process. We share the view expressed by veterans’ groups at an earlier hearing that VBA should complete the current pilot projects before starting others, such as the pilot proposed by H.R.1647, that might interfere with their progress, hinder VBA’s ability to manage its workload or have other unintended consequences.

Within the next two years, VBA should see a reduction in the backlog. Many new hires will have acquired sufficient experience to increase their production levels.  The recent surge of complex Nemer cases will have subsided. A number of the current pilot projects should be ready for a national rollout (and will no longer need to divert personnel from other functions.)  

We especially caution against new initiatives that would restructure VBA based on labels like “underperforming” or “low performing” ROs.  These are questionable labels that should not be the basis for major policy changes. RO performance data varies from RO for many reasons, including:

  • Number of new hires;
  • Number of veterans filing claims at each RO;
  • Experience level of managers;
  • Quality of employee training;
  • Whether staff is being detailed to another office (e.g. managers from Cleveland and other ROs have been detailed to other offices);
  • Impact of brokering on performance data (e.g. often two ROs get credit for the rating of one case);
  • Finally, and quite significant: How well local managers manipulate performance data.

Rather than resort to new pilot projects or a major restructuring of VBA, AFGE urges the Subcommittee to build on current momentum by addressing three essential components of RO performance: training, quality of supervision and performance measures.

IMPROVED TRAINING WILL REDUCE THE BACKLOG

VBA training continues to be left too much to the discretion of RO managers preoccupied with “making the numbers” at all costs. It is widely acknowledged that it takes at least two to three years for new hires to get close to “full production”   Yet, new hires returning from Challenge training are not getting the on-the-job training, supervision and mentoring they need to reach that level. They are rushed into production before they receive adequate hands-on training. Also, rather than rotating new hires to all stations, many are kept at stations experience the most problems, which  prevents them from being able to handle a full range of claims later on.

Current employees also face widespread deficiencies with training provided by VBA to meet the mandatory 85 hour yearly requirement. Simply put, too often, 85 hours are not 85 hours.  Our members frequently report that managers substitute fixed hours of classroom training on complex concepts with significantly less “excluded time” to learn this information online without any instruction.

As a former Rating Specialist (RVSR), I can say with certainty that if RVSR training was nationally consistent and of good quality, variations in performance between ROs would greatly diminish. 

On numerous occasions, VBA has made a commitment to Congress to develop a cadre of national trainers teaching the same curriculum based on similar interpretations of law and regulations.  To date, it has not delivered on that commitment. 

I am not aware of any performance measures that reflect the quality of training provided by managers or the degree of management compliance with the 85 hour requirement.

QUALITY SUPERVISION WILL IMPROVE ACCURACY AND TIMELINESS

Given the growing complexity of claims coming into VBA and the immense pressure to rush new hires into production, it is all the more urgent that they receive supervision and mentoring from experienced managers with sufficient expertise.

In addition to mentoring and supervision, RO managers are responsible for  conducting quality assurance and managing the workflow without sacrificing accuracy. Unfortunately, many VBA managers have been promoted after only a few years of “floor” experience regardless of their own skill levels.

In 2008, a unanimous Congress enacted Public Law 110-389 that provided for another needed reform: supervisor skills certification. This exam is still not in place. Like the skills certification exams that VSRs and RVSRs must pass, a supervisor certification exam can be a valuable tool for ensuring that managers know their subject matter – especially because they are not on the floor processing claims themselves every day.

As a veteran, I also am troubled by how few managers are veterans themselves, despite clear veterans’ preference rules that apply to VBA.   I know firsthand how veterans’ status gives VBA employees a vested interest in making sure that a veteran gets what he or she earned, and in a timely fashion. In my RO, only about 5 percent of managers are veterans, in contrast to at least 40 percent frontline employees with veteran status. 

FLAWED PERFORMANCE MEASURES HURT QUALITY AND PRODUCTION

The 2008 also law mandated that VBA develop an evidence-based work credit system to ensure that performance measures count all work that goes into getting a claim processed correctly the first time, including full claims development. Three years later, VBA still imposes arbitrary, unrealistic performance measures set through local management discretion that reward quantity at the expense of quality.  It is urgent that VBA finally comply with the 2008 law, and include front line employees in the development of these critical measures.

OTHER COMMENTS

Is mandatory overtime cost effective? The current national 20 hour per month mandatory overtime requirement for all employees has been in place for a month.  We fear the added costs of this requirement far outweigh the benefits. First, many ROs were already selectively using mandatory overtime (at a lower number of hours) to increase production.  The new overtime requirement is imposing undue pressure on  many employees with family commitments, and is already leading to resignations, shortcuts and lower workplace morale.  The VBA workforce was already under intense pressure to make production; mandating more hours of work may lead to marginal returns at a great cost.

Bonuses: We also urge the Subcommittee to address the issue of excessive bonuses.  Managers at my RO and many others continue to receive large bonuses regardless of performance, at the expense of taxpayers, veterans and workplace morale. 

National Call Centers: AFGE urges the Subcommittee to look closely at the National Call Centers (NCC) and assess whether these resources would be better spent back at the ROs or on a centralized, automated tracking system for claims. The new Genesys system deprives NCC employees of adequate time to complete other tasks between calls and at the end of their shifts.  They now have on average only five seconds (instead of fifteen) between calls. At the end of the day, they have less than fifteen minutes to complete other work, down from thirty minutes under the old system. As a result, employees are pressured to take shortcuts and work off the clock.

Genesys is also causing real hardships for veterans. They are on hold much longer. Employees are expected to work from scripts rather than provide individualized help. Calls longer than six minutes are discouraged and employees are pressured to keep most calls to three minutes.  It is simply wrong to limit an 80 year old veteran to a three minute call, especially when it takes two minutes just to get him through the ID protocol!

We also recommend a reexamination of the costs and benefits of the Broome Closet templates used by NCC employees to answer callers’ questions and create correspondence.  In addition to a significant error rate, this program creates additional steps in the process that cause unnecessary delays.

Consistency Studies: VBA has been conducting interreliability studies in the field to test the consistency of DRO and RVSR decisions. AFGE supports efforts to improve national consistency, but we are concerned that VBA is not producing reliable data or using these studies to make real improvements.

High Cost of Poor Personnel Practices: The number of labor-management problems at ROs is skyrocketing.  Rather than working with employees and their representatives, RO managers are threatening many hardworking employees with terminations and “performance improvement plans.”  These wasteful actions hurt the ability of front line employees to do their jobs and divert dollars from direct services to veterans. Holding front line employees responsible for management failures is not going to solve the backlog. Rather, we should all be working together on a meaningful solution.

Thank you again for the opportunity to share AFGE’s views on this important issue.


American Federation of Government Employees
Washington, DC.
June 2, 2011

The Honorable Jon Runyan, Chairman
Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs
335 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC  20515

Dear Chairman Runyan:

The American Federation of Government Employees has not received any federal grants or contracts, during this year or in the last two years, from any agency or program relevant to the subject of the June 2, 2011 Oversight Hearing of the  Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs on Underperforming Regional Offices of the Veterans Benefits Administration.    

Sincerely,

Beth Moten
Legislative and Political Director