Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Submission For The Record of American Federation of Government Employees and the AFGE National Veterans’ Affairs Council
American Federation of Government Employees and the AFGE National Veterans’ Affairs Council (hereinafter “AFGE”) appreciate this opportunity to provide a statement for the record on VBA Transformation.
As the exclusive representative of Department of Veterans Affairs (Department) Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) employees who process disability claims, AFGE lends a unique perspective to discussions about the claims backlog, including agency efforts to improve training and claims accuracy and implement new information technology (IT) systems.
We appreciate VBA’s increased willingness to listen to AFGE and our members. The VBA workforce has always been a key stakeholder in efforts to improve the claims process, along with veterans’ groups, VA and Congress. Our members have had some, but not enough, participation in VBA Transformation pilots. We urge the Committee to establish a mechanism for regular collaboration of all stakeholders, consistent with Executive Order 13522, Establishing Labor Management Forums, including the mandate to “allow employees and their union representatives to have pre-decisional involvement in all workplace matters to the fullest extent practicable.”
Transformation will also benefit from greater transparency; too often, new VBA initiatives and policies are developed behind closed doors, and during implementation, limited information is provided to front line staff most directly affected by changes.
Employees also need more opportunity to share insights with each other during the Transformation process. As one VBA employee observed, “Communication on and in between teams was discouraged rather than encouraged. This is the opposite of what was intended.”
AFGE’s greatest concern with the Transformation Plan is VBA’s deviation from that plan, in search of “quick fixes”. Even in the middle of an extremely complex Transformation Plan involving over 40 initiatives, VBA continues to act almost impulsively by starting entirely different initiatives that decrease production and waste significant taxpayer dollars. Two recent examples:
1.Failed, Illegal Contract for Claims Development: Last year, VBA entered into a $54 million three-year contract for claims development with ACS Government Systems, a Xerox-subsidiary. ACS has a very poor record as a government contractor, and no familiarity with the VBA disability claims process. VBA employees were taken out of production to train ACS employees. Significant taxpayer dollars were also spent to prepare and move files between offices. The result? ACS performed so poorly that on June 14th, VBA ordered regional offices (RO) to stop sending new cases to ACS to ensure that the contractor “resolves their timeliness and development issues.” Now, VBA employees must handle the additional cases that ACS did not complete. (AFGE received a report that of the 80,000 claims sent to ACS, only 200 were returned.) This contract was wasteful and diverted resources and staff away from Transformation initiatives. It also violated federal law, specifically the statutory prohibition against direct conversion in 41 U.S.C. §439(a). AFGE urges Congress to hold VBA accountable for the costs of its failed contracts, and require the agency to respond to the March 21st Congressional letter of inquiry (Appendix A).
2.30-Day RO Shutdowns: Last month, VBA shut down all production at the Oakland RO and Sacramento Satellite Office and mandated full-time employee training to respond to recent Inspector General reports of low performance. (We note that ACS received more claims from this RO than almost every other RO.) Our members at this location report that VBA did not seek any input from front line employees or AFGE regarding the training curriculum, and management did not ask front line employees who are experienced Challenge instructors to provide training. We recently learned that plans for similar shutdowns in LA and other locations have been put on hold. Initial reports from Oakland indicate that its 30-day training program left a lot of room for improvement.
Generally, AFGE echoes many of the concerns raised by veterans’ groups in their testimony regarding training, quality review, and the need for a better balance between quality and quantity. Our specific concerns, including examples from the field, are set forth below.
RO Staffing Allocation: More generally, on the issue of low performing ROs, we urge Congress to look at VBA’s current system of staff allocation. We question whether VBA is in fact “starving” low performing offices of staff while “rewarding” high performing offices with more staff, rather than looking at relevant factors such as number of new hires, number of veterans filing claims at each RO and experience level of managers. To address the specific barriers to high performance at each RO, it is critical that RO managers seek greater input from front line employees and their representatives.
Training: The quality of VBA’s training program continues to lag, especially training provided at the ROs after completion of new employee training. VBA’s growing reliance on web-based training, rather than classroom training, is most likely driven by the goal of minimizing the amount of lost production time. (To quote one employee, “I can’t remember the last classroom training I had.”) However, production decreases when employees fail to comprehend complex new material. Similarly, web-based training allows pressured managers to rush employees through training modules; it is more difficult to hold managers accountable for failing to comply with VA Central Office (VACO) mandates for “excluded” time for training that is provided outside the classroom.
The lack of expertise among instructors continues to weaken VBA classroom training. For example, at the St. Petersburg RO, management recently prepared for upcoming Challenge training by soliciting volunteers who were asked to perform self-assessments of abilities to instruct as subject matter experts. In addition, VBA regularly promotes managers to positions involving supervision and quality assurance after only a few years of “floor” experience
VBA has still not fully implemented another valuable tool for ensuring quality supervision: the supervisor skills certification test mandated by Section 225 of Public Law 110-389.
Outdated Work Credit System: Public Law 110-389 also mandated a study to overhaul VBA’s system for assigning work (also known as “time motion studies” or “elapsed time studies”). The ability to measure the amount of time needed to perform specific tasks is a basic building block of production in the private sector and is equally essential to properly transforming the VBA claims process, especially given Transformation workflow initiatives such as express lanes. We urge the Committee to take a closer look at VBA’s progress on this mandate as well. It is especially urgent that VBA provide adequate credit for case development (rather than undervalue this function by contracting it out to a contractor lacking expertise.)
VBMS: At the Ft. Harrison, MT RO, where the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) has been fully implemented, employees are experiencing many system “glitches”. Some of them are being addressed, but others are more fundamental and are slowing down production. Generally, employees find that VBMS does not interface well with other systems used to process claims.
Document Scanning and VBA Job Opportunities for Veterans: A Win-Win: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has estimated that VBA needs 4,000 additional employees to convert VBA to a paperless system. AFGE strongly urges the Committee to mandate that this function be performed by veterans working for VBA, rather than a contractor. This will: (1) create thousands of entry level jobs for unemployed veterans consistent with Secretary Shinseki’s pledge to increase the percentage of veterans in the VA workforce by ten points; (2) save taxpayer dollars that would have been spent on the contracting process and on moving files between the VA and contractor; and, (3) lower the risk of security breaches because personal information is kept in-house. And yes, new employees can be brought in more quickly than a contractor: VBA can use the same flexible hiring authorities (term and temporary appointments) it has used in the recent past to quickly hire new claims processors.
Thank you again for the opportunity to present AFGE’s views on the VBA Claims Transformation Plan.