Witness Testimony of Ruth A. Fanning, Director, Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program. I am pleased to be accompanied by Ms. Iris Cooper, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction. We look forward to continuing our strong collaboration and partnership with this Subcommittee, the full Committee, and the entire Congress as we work together to enhance the delivery of benefits and services to our Nation’s Veterans with disabilities.
Overview of the VR&E Program
The VR&E program is designed to assist disabled Servicemembers in their transition to civilian life and suitable employment and careers. Our primary mission is to assist Veterans with service-connected disabilities to prepare for and obtain suitable and sustainable employment through the provision of services individually tailored to each Veteran’s needs. VR&E services begin with a comprehensive evaluation to help Veterans identify and understand their interests, aptitudes, and transferable skills. Next, vocational exploration focuses Veterans’ potential career goals with labor-market demands. This allows Veterans to participate in the development of a rehabilitation plan that builds on their transferable skills and ultimately assists them in achieving their career goals. To help Veterans accomplish their rehabilitation goals, VR&E provides a broad range of employment services such as:
- Translation of military experience to civilian skill sets;
- Direct job-placement services;
- Short-term training to augment existing skills to increase employability (e.g., certification preparation tests and sponsorship of certification); and
- Long-term training including on-the-job training, apprenticeships, college training, or services that support self-employment.
In addition, VR&E provides extensive outreach and early intervention services through our Coming Home to Work (CHTW) program. Under this program, full-time VR&E rehabilitation counselors are assigned to 13 military treatment facilities to assist disabled Servicemembers in planning for their next careers. We also have CHTW coordinators in every regional office working with Department of Defense (DoD) Warrior Transition Units and programs, coming home events, Guard and Reserve Yellow Ribbon events, and Post Deployment Health Reassessments.
VR&E Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Budget
The FY 2012 budget request for VR&E supports 1,286 direct Full Time Employees (FTE), an increase of 132 FTE from the current 2010 level of 1,154. These additional resources will support a projected 15 percent increase in workload from FY 2010, and expand two very important programs.
- 110 employees are requested to increase VR&E’s early intervention and outreach program in the joint VA/DoD Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES). VR&E rehabilitation counselors at the selected IDES sites will provide separating Servicemembers with a mandatory initial counseling session, followed by continued vocational services for eligible Servicemembers who elect to participate in the VR&E program. Initial meetings will inform Servicemembers of the availability of benefits and services through the VR&E and other VA education programs. In many cases, this will allow training and preparatory services to begin while the Servicemember is still in the IDES process.
- Nine additional FTE are requested to expand VA’s VetSuccess on Campus initiative. This program, already in place at eight campuses, supports Veteran-students in completing college and entering fulfilling careers. VR&E rehabilitation counselors and Vet Center counselors provide strong on-campus support systems that include counseling services, assistance in accessing VA benefits, help in overcoming barriers that may include physical or mental health issues, and assistance in connecting with other Veteran-students.
In addition, the FY 2012 budget request supports modernization of the Disabled Transition Assistance Program (DTAP). Program content will be specifically tailored to Servicemember and Veteran audiences and DTAP will be deployed in multiple channels, making it readily accessible to Servicemembers, Veterans, and family members on a “just-in-time” basis.
The budget request also supports VR&E’s ongoing transformation initiative to streamline and simplify our processes, speed Veterans’ entry into VR&E services, while freeing staff to focus on direct service delivery such as vocational counseling and job placement assistance versus time consuming administrative efforts.
VR&E Legislatively Mandated Studies
Public Law 110-389 required VA to conduct two studies; section 333 specified a study on the completion of VR&E services, and section 334 specified a twenty year longitudinal study of three Veteran cohorts.
The Study of Measures to Assist and Encourage Veterans in Completing Vocational Rehabilitation (mandated by section 333), was completed and reported to Congress in April, 2010. VR&E has implemented or is in the process of implementing all six recommendations resulting from the study. These recommendations included satisfaction surveys of Veterans who leave before completing their programs; provision of opportunities for counselors to develop skills that contribute to positive client relationships; active outreach regarding VR&E programs and services to Veterans and their families; increased integration of vocational rehabilitation and other services, so that the main factors influencing program dropouts are addressed early; studies to identify factors associated with program completion; and studies on financial incentives that promote program completion.
We did not request funding in FY 2010 or FY 2011 to conduct the longitudinal study, but VR&E Service completed preliminary analysis to establish the study protocol for data collection. Our FY 2012 budget request includes funding to support submission of full requirements of the FY 2012 longitudinal study. Although the longitudinal study required by section 334 was not funded in FY 2010 or FY 2011, VR&E Service is preparing a report for submission to Congress that will aggregate the limited data available for the first 2010 cohort group. VA expects to furnish it in July 2011.
Program Participation and Metrics
The VR&E program currently serves approximately 105,000 Veterans through the VetSuccess program. Of that number, approximately 57,000 are engaged in rehabilitation plans leading toward employability for career outcomes that will be realized this year or over the next 5 years, depending on the program track and duration, as well as economic factors in the labor market. The remaining 48,000 Veterans are in other phases of the program, such as evaluation and planning. Of those Veterans who were provided a “track” of services and exited during FY 2010, 77 percent, or more than 10,000, were successfully rehabilitated last year.
We project participation to increase 5 percent (approximately 109,000) in FY 2011 and 10 percent (approximately 120,000) in FY 2012. These increases are based on the increase of compensable presumptive conditions, VR&E’s participation in the IDES process, and Congress’ recent changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33) that will allow VR&E participants who are eligible for Chapter 33 benefits to elect the higher Chapter 33 housing allowance. The Veteran-to-counselor caseload ratio is 136 participants per counselor. With the anticipated workload and staffing increases, we expect the 2012 ratio to be similar.
Over the past three fiscal years, VR&E Service has placed a large focus on the independent living (IL) program, which serves those Veterans who are unable to work due to significant disabilities. In fiscal year 2010, we developed 2,456 new IL plans, which are used to maximize Veteran’s autonomy with activities of daily living at home and in their communities. Reductions in the number of IL plans in prior years are related to two primary factors. First, VR&E concentrated a significant amount of training to ensure the field is providing IL services consistent with regulatory requirements. Second, we focused training on services that are holistic in nature, incorporating both employment and IL services. These hybrid plans do not count toward the yearly cap of IL cases. In addition, as assistive technology continues to progress and new rehabilitation models allow Veterans with more significant disabilities to enter the working world, we anticipate that hybrid rehabilitation plans that address both independent living and employment needs will continue to increase. VR&E’s objective is to assist service-disabled Veterans enter the workforce so they can realize the corresponding positive impact on self-esteem and health resulting from their careers, and so that our nation can benefit from their skills and contributions.
We anticipate that, as Servicemembers continue to return with complex injuries, and Vietnam Veterans with serious and progressive disabilities are awarded service-connection based on the new Agent Orange presumptive conditions, we will continue to focus additional attention on this critical VA program.
After the National Acquisition Strategy (NAS) contracts ended in July 2009, VR&E applied lessons learned from those contracts into an interim contract solution for regional offices needing contract counseling services to augment the services provided by VA employees. Local regional office VR&E programs were assisted in awarding local “bridge” contracts until new VetSuccess contracts could be put into place. Currently we have 62 bridge contracts, overseen by 29 contracting officers. We also converted some contracting funds to support additional FTE in order to improve timeliness and quality. As we have previously discussed with Subcommittee staff, effective today, we are commencing the award of the new VetSuccess contracts. These new contracts standardize contracting procedures, including structured report templates, standardized referral processes and forms, and a new automated invoicing and invoice approval process.
Through cross-VA coordination and support from VBA field personnel; the Office of Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction (OALC); and the Office of General Counsel, we created a sound acquisition product, corresponding training, and a comprehensive post-award governance process to ensure continued oversight of contractors and appropriate administration by VR&E staff designated as contracting officer representatives. New contractors will have a 90-day ramp-up period to finalize staffing, complete security background checks and required security training. OALC and VR&E will conduct a post-award conference with successful offerors to ensure a thorough understanding of all relevant contracting processes, contract terms and conditions, and roles and responsibilities for the successful execution of the contracts. Contract administration tasks will be delegated as appropriate to administrative contracting officers and contracting officer technical representatives. As part of the contract phase-in, the VA team will ensure contractor compliance with contract staffing and space requirements. This process enables VA to verify that contractors have the capability to deliver quality services to Veterans, in a timely manner.
Coordination with Rehabilitation Partners
VA coordinates with rehabilitation partners around the country – including with colleges and universities, the Department of Education (particularly the Rehabilitation Services Administration), the Department of Labor, the Office of Personnel Management, DoD Wounded Warrior Programs, and Veterans Service Organizations. The Department of Education’s Veterans Upward Bound program provides many important services to Veterans preparing to reenter college, including assessment of academic skills, refresher courses, assistance in completing college admission forms, personal academic advice and career counseling, assistance in completing financial aid and scholarship applications, tutoring and mentoring, and referrals to other community agencies serving Veterans. Similarly, the Department of Education’s Center for Excellence for Veteran Student Success program provides grant funds to colleges to encourage model programs to support Veteran-student success in postsecondary education. These programs coordinate services to address the academic, financial, physical, and social needs of Veteran-students and are strong complements to the VA’s VetSuccess on Campus program. We will continue to work collaboratively with the Department of Education to ensure that assistance is coordinated and any overlap of services minimized.
Business Process Reengineering Project
VR&E Service recently launched a transformation project geared to make our VetSuccess program the premier 21st Century Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program. In 2004, a VR&E Task Force report provided 110 recommendations to improve operations and service delivery. VR&E Service implemented 100 of the 2004 VR&E Taskforce recommendations. In the seven years since this Task Force report, VA has identified other significant opportunities to enhance service to Veterans. VR&E’s current transformation effort focuses on modernizing and streamlining services using a Veteran-centric approach.”
VR&E’s transformative changes include allowing Veterans more choice in their appointment scheduling through automated scheduling, and expediting the Veteran’s entry into a rehabilitation program by streamlining and expediting the evaluation and planning process through reduction of bureaucratic processes and paperwork performed by VR&E counselors. Additional improvements include developing a caseload and staffing model and additional performance metrics for oversight and administration of the VR&E program. Next month VR&E is releasing a Knowledge Management Portal to simplify counselors’ access to regulations, guidance, and other policy information needed to perform their jobs. And finally, VR&E is developing methods and business rules to move into a paperless processing model that incorporates self-service.
Working in collaboration with VA’s Innovation Initiative (VAi2), VR&E Service is also engaged in innovative initiatives to build self-employment incubators and tools, leading to more Veteran-owned businesses; self-management that will allow the most seriously disabled Veterans to work in the career of their choosing and live as independently as possible; and developing a VA employee innovation competition to allow the staff working every day with our Veterans to identify additional program enhancements. Important partners in the self-employment innovation have included the Small Business Administration and VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization.
Another extremely important initiative is the enhancement of the VetSuccess.gov Web site to provide a one-stop resource for Veterans and family members for services during transition, campus life, job search, and careers, as well as assistance to maximize independence in their homes and communities. The Web site includes a job board for employers desiring to hire Veterans, resume builders and upload tools that allow Veterans to utilize resumes already developed, military-to-civilian jobs translator, aggregator tools for employers seeking certain skill sets and for Veterans seeking specific jobs, and a feedback mechanism to self-report employment gained through the site. The job-board feature of VetSuccess.gov currently connects over 60,000 Veterans with over 1,300 employers. Veterans also have access through the Direct Employers Job Central career board to over 4 million jobs, with additional links to Simply Hired, Indeed, and Google. Future enhancements to the site will include self-assessment tools and interactive maps that drill down to resources in the Veteran’s community.
VA will continue to seek new and innovative ways to assist Veterans in achieving their goals for full, productive, and meaningful lives. Our focus is on helping Veterans build upon the excellent skills gained through their military service, while streamlining and enhancing our services. VA will continue to work with all sectors of Government and private and public employment communities to assist Veterans in reaching their highest potential in this challenging economy.
Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, this concludes my statement. Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I will be happy to respond to any questions from you or other Members of the Subcommittee.