Witness Testimony of Jeffrey C. Hall, Assistant National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans
H.R. 2349 – the Veterans’ Benefits Training Improvement Act of 2011 would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to annually assess the skills of certain employees and managers of the Veterans Benefits Administration.
- DAV supports the intent of this legislation to train, test and hold accountable all employees and managers involved in claims processing, however Congress should first enforce existing testing requirements before moving new legislation.
- VBA training and testing programs must be fully integrated with existing and new quality assurance and quality control programs to ensure that claims are done right the first time.
- If new testing requirements are to be implemented, VBA must be required to consult with VSO stakeholders and employee representatives in developing such tests.
H.R.1025 – would recognize, as veterans, members of the reserves who retire due to age; however, these individuals would not be entitled to benefits by virtue of this status alone. DAV is concerned about creating misunderstanding in the American public about who is a “veteran”, while also causing confusion amongst reservists as to their entitlement to veterans benefits.
H.R.1826 – would establish criminal penalties for persons unlawfully charging veterans unauthorized fees for claims representation. DAV supports this legislation in order to strengthen legal protection for disabled veterans’ resources.
H.R. 1898 – the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act would prevent veterans from being adjudicated as mentally incompetent to purchase a firearm without an order or finding from a judge, magistrate or other judicial authority. DAV has no position on this legislation.
H.R. 923 – the Veterans Pensions Protection Act of 2011 would exclude from annual income calculations for nonservice connected pension benefits, insurance reimbursements resulting from accidents, theft or loss. DAV does not oppose passage of this legislation.
Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney and Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for inviting the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) to testify at this legislative hearing of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. As you know, DAV is a non-profit organization comprised of 1.2 million service-disabled veterans focused on building better lives for America’s disabled veterans and their families.
Mr. Chairman, at the Subcommittee’s request, DAV is pleased to be here today to present our views on the bills under consideration by the Subcommittee.
HR 2349, the Veterans Benefits Training Improvements Act of 2011, would require appropriate Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) employees and managers involved in processing claims for compensation or pension benefits to have their skills assessed annually. Any employee or manager who receives a less than satisfactory result on any part of the assessment would be subject to remediation to address each deficiency in their skills. The legislation also requires each of these employees and managers to have individualized training plans developed and implemented related to their skills or lack thereof. If after two opportunities for remediation, the employee or manager is still unable to receive a satisfactory result on their assessment, they would be subject to disciplinary actions. The legislation also requires an annual report detailing the results of the new annual skills assessments, including a summary of the remediation efforts and disciplinary actions.
Mr. Chairman, DAV has long supported the intent of this legislation: to require testing, training and accountability for all employees and managers involved in processing claims for veterans disability compensation benefits. Like you, we believe regular testing of all relevant employees and managers is an effective way to determine if they have the requisite skills to properly perform their jobs. When testing finds gaps or deficiencies in the skills or knowledge required to properly process veterans’ benefit claims, it is imperative that additional, targeted training be provided to those employees or managers in order to bring their skills up to the level required by their positions. However, should repeated attempts to correct such identified deficiencies be unsuccessful, it is incumbent upon VBA to take appropriate personnel actions so that only qualified employees and managers are involved in processing claims. Only through such training and testing, as well as comprehensive quality control measures, can VBA develop a claims processing system that provides both accurate and timely results for disabled veterans, their loved ones and survivors.
DAV’s employee training and development program includes significant training and testing requirements for each of our approximately 300 National Service Officers (NSOs) and Transition Service Officers (TSOs). Each of them are required to successfully complete our comprehensive 32-month Structured and Continued Training program approximately every three years, which includes numerous examinations that must be passed in order to continue moving forward. We hold our supervisors to the same high standards set for the personnel they manage, including all testing requirements.
However, while we agree that new testing requirements may be necessary at VBA, we would recommend that before attempting to enact new legislation, Congress should first examine how similar laws already on the books are being implemented and enforced. Perhaps more importantly, we believe it is imperative that all training and testing programs are made part of and fully integrated within existing and new quality assurance and quality control programs. The goal must be to create a continuous improvement program that identifies employee errors, as well as systemic flaws and weaknesses before they lead to inaccurate decisions for veterans.
Mr. Chairman, as you know Public Law 110-389, the Veterans Benefits Act of 2008, which was enacted on October 10, 2008, required VBA to put in place a certification examination process for VBA employees and managers involved in processing claims, which included some language very similar to language found in H.R. 2349. Yet, almost three years after enactment of that legislation there are still gaps in and problems with this testing process. While certification exams were developed for Veterans Service Representatives (VSRs), Rating Veterans Service Representatives (RVSRs) and Decision Review Officers (DROs), there are not yet any examinations for coaches, supervisors or managers in VBA Regional Offices (ROs).
Although the law required it, VBA did not consult with “interested stakeholders” in developing these examinations; neither DAV nor other veterans service organizations involved in claims process were consulted. Considering DAV’s role, experience and expertise in the processing of claims for disability compensation, we believe VBA would be well served to consult with DAV and other VSOs when developing tests or examinations for their employees and managers.
While the intention of P.L. 110-389 was to ensure that all relevant VBA employees had the requisite skills to do their jobs, we have been told that the examinations are primarily being done only when there is a GS-level grade increase or other promotion under consideration. We have also heard complaints that the examinations do not properly assess the skills or knowledge required for each position. There have also been some reports that early versions of the examinations resulted in extremely high failure rates. We would encourage the Subcommittee to require VBA to provide comprehensive information on the development and implementation of the certification examinations required by Section 7732A of Title 38, including examinations for managers. While there are still problems and questions related to the implementation of these certification examinations, DAV believes it would be premature to insert into Title 38 a new Section 7732B creating an annual employee assessment program without first fixing the problems with the existing testing program created by Section 7732A.
While testing and training are essential to reforming the claims processing system they must be integrated into VBA’s quality assurance and control programs to provide effectiveness. Results of employee testing do not just point out individual weaknesses that must be addressed; they also reveal systemic problems in both the claims process as well as employee training programs themselves. Unless there are direct linkages between training, testing and quality control, VBA will miss the opportunity to take full advantage of the myriad of data that exists, including STAR reviews, coaches reviews, Board of Veterans Appeals remands and other quality assurance programs. VBA may want to consider whether to consolidate training, testing, and quality control programs in a single location under the control of the Compensation Service.
Additionally, we offer the following recommendations to strengthen the language in H.R. 2349 should this or something similar be advanced by the Subcommittee. As introduced, the bill would require that the Secretary, “… annually assess the skills of appropriate employees and managers…”. While we understand that the term “assess” is intended to be mean an objective test, the terminology is not specific enough and should be clear on the type of assessment required. Since Section 7732A of the statute that would precede this new section uses the term “examination”, we would recommend that more specific language be used to indicate exactly what type of assessment is intended in a new Section 7732B.
We also recommend that the Subcommittee consider further defining who the “appropriate employees and managers” would be. In particular, DAV believes that coaches, supervisors and managers who have the authority to overrule the judgment of an employee should be held to the same testing standard as that employee. It is important for any new legislation to specify exactly which employees and managers to be tested annually, as well as what testing requirements for managers that are substantially similar to those taken by the employees they supervise.
Likewise, DAV strongly recommends that language about test development, similar to that already in Section 7732A, be included in any new testing legislation. This would allow proper consultation with VSO stakeholders, as well as employee representatives, so that our input can be fully integrated in the development and implementation of new testing procedures.
Moreover, DAV recommends that the Subcommittee include new language to ensure that the results of any new testing be used to identify not just employee deficiencies, but also problems in the training and claims processing systems. All quality assurance and control measures, whether for employees, stations or the entire claims processing system, should be aggregated and analyzed together in order to identify error trends. For example, if a statistically relevant number of employees all fail a particular part of a skills test or exam, VBA must not just remediate those employees, but also consider whether there are system-wide problems related to this aspect of the job, or whether training modules need to be changed, or whether the test itself needs to be changed. The new Veterans Benefits Management System should serve as the backbone to bring together all of this separate data into a unified quality control system that is continuously using test results to strengthen training and to strengthen claims processing accuracy.
Finally, we strongly recommend that the Subcommittee change the term “disciplinary action” to “personnel action”, which accurately conveys the importance of individual accountability without needlessly appearing to be punitive. Disciplinary actions imply misconduct or the breaking rules or laws. Employees who perform unsatisfactorily on tests or who are unable to properly perform their jobs may need to be moved out of their position, which should not be seen as a disciplinary action or punishment.
Mr. Chairman, like you, we believe that training and testing are important components of a benefits system designed to decide each claim right the first time. However, we believe Congress must first examine if and how current training and testing requirements are being implemented and enforced before adding new testing requirements,. More importantly, we believe that training and testing must be fully integrated with quality assurance and quality control programs to truly reform the claims processing system and would welcome the opportunity to work with the Subcommittee towards that goal.
H.R. 1025 would amend title 38, United States Code, by recognizing as veterans those members of a reserve component of the armed forces who are entitled to retired pay for nonregular service. Should this legislation be passed, it would honor this group of reserve component retirees with the status of veteran; however, this new status alone would not entitle these individuals to any benefit provided to those who served on active duty.
DAV does not have a resolution on this matter. We are concerned, however, that measures such as this may lead to a misunderstanding in the minds of the American public about those veterans who earned the designation of veteran by virtue of their active duty service, compared to those who would be granted the honorary title of veteran. Moreover, we feel a subsequent confusion might be created amongst reservists as to exactly what benefits they would be entitled to receive.
H.R.1826 would institute criminal penalties for persons charging veterans unauthorized fees for representation before the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Specifically, this bill would establish penalties, including fines and/or imprisonment of not more than one year as provided under title 18, for anyone who solicits, contracts for, charges, receives, or attempts to solicit, contract for, charge, or receive, any fee or compensation for advice on how to file a claim for benefits or the preparation, presentation, or prosecution of a claim before a claimant has submitted a “notice of disagreement” (NOD) in a proceeding on the claim.
While DAV has no specific resolution on this matter, we see the intent of legislation as vital to the protection of veterans’ resources, which are often limited or fixed. The process upon which veterans, their families and beneficiaries receive benefits is designed so that they will receive the full measure of aid from disability compensation and other monetary payments without unnecessarily having part of that benefit diverted into the pockets of others who have no entitlement to them. Although current law only allows attorney’s to collect fees for representation once a claimant enters into the appellate process, it does not include penalties for anyone who unlawfully collects fees for representation prior to an NOD being filed. If enacted, this legislation would codify criminal penalties in order to better protect veterans from such abuse.
Although DAV has not yet adopted a specific resolution on this particular matter, we support passage of H.R. 1826.
Mr. Chairman, we would also note that from the inception of a claim and through all phases of the process, a claimant can obtain professional quality representation at no cost from accredited Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), such as DAV, or from other accredited organizations. Although the current process allows an attorney to collect fees from a claimant we continue to be concerned that there is no limitation on the amount of fees that may be charged by attorneys for representing a veteran. During our 2010 National Convention DAV’s membership adopted resolution #288 calling for legislation to provide a reasonable cap on the amount of fees an attorney can charge veterans for benefits counseling and claims services before VA and we urge the Subcommittee to consider such legislation.
H.R. 1898, the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act,would clarify the conditions under which certain persons may be treated as adjudicated mentally incompetent without an order or finding from a judge, magistrate or other judicial authority. This legislation provides that, in the absence of a judicial determination of mental incompetency, VA would be prohibited from reporting an individual veteran’s identity or competency status to any authority that could restrict that veteran’s ability to purchase a firearm.
DAV has no resolution on this matter and takes no position on this bill.
H.R. 923, the Veterans Pensions Protection Act of 2011,would exempt or exclude reimbursements of expenses related to accident, theft, loss, or casualty loss from determinations of annual income with respect to nonservice-connected pension benefits. This legislation is intended to ensure those individuals who are in receipt of this income limited benefit will not have their benefit reduced because their loss was covered by insurance.
Although this issue is outside the scope of our mission we would not oppose passage of H.R. 923.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony and I would be happy to answer any questions the Subcommittee may have. Thank you.