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Witness Testimony of Michael Ratajczak, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Decision Review Officer, Veterans Affairs Cleveland Regional Office, on behalf of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO

Dear Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on behalf of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO (AFGE), the exclusive representative of employees in the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

I currently serve as a Decision Review Officer (DRO) at VBA’s Cleveland Regional Office, and have been employed with VBA for almost eight years. My other experiences at VBA include duties with the Appeals Management Center, work on a joint remand quality review project with the Board of Veterans Appeals, service in a Rating Resource Center, and participation in Rating Specialist (RVSR) and DRO Certification Testing Design Committees and question writing activities. Prior to my employment with VBA, I practiced law.

Can the VA handle 1 million claims? We can and we must because we cannot fail those who have never failed us. AFGE and the VBA employees we represent --- many of whom are veterans themselves -- are committed to working tirelessly with the VA and Congress to reduce the backlog to ensure that veterans’ claims are processed with accuracy and timeliness. 

We are very encouraged by Secretary Shinseki’s commitment to restoring a working environment where employees on the front lines are viewed as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. We are equally appreciative of Chairman Hall’s consistent interest in receiving AFGE’s views on this issue. 

The valuable tools provided by P.L. 110-389 to modernize the VA disability claims process were also the product of an inclusive dialogue between stakeholders.  These tools – including improvements in employee certification and training, studies to overhaul the current work credit and work management systems, and enhanced information technology (IT) – will significantly reduce an inventory of one million claims or any other size.  The urgency of putting these tools into practice grows greater with each new claim in the queue.  These tools are crucial for achieving the most important objective of all: do each claim right the first time.

Skills Certification and Training

 The requirement in the new law to require some managers to take skills certification tests will yield multiple benefits for VBA’s efforts to address the million claims backlog.  Our members regularly report that they are supervised by managers who have little or no experience performing the complex functions involved in processing disability claims, rendering their roles as mentors and trainers ineffective.  Managers without sufficient expertise are also unable to carry out quality assurance duties, leading to greater errors, which in turn lead to more appeals, remands and other delays.

The requirement in the law that VBA consult with all stakeholders, including employee representatives, in order to improve the certification process will ensure the development of effective exams that test for appropriate skills.

AFGE understands that the design process for certification testing of first line supervisors, Assistant Service Center Managers, and Service Center Managers is imminent or has already begun. Unfortunately, employee representatives have not been given the opportunity for input into this effort.  VBA must include employee representatives in the design process to ensure that management certification is sufficiently rigorous, and therefore, adequately prepares managers and employees who perform quality review of the work of VSRs, RVSRs and DROs.  Workplace morale also suffers when front line employees work under intense pressure to adjudicate complex claims while supervised by managers who have not done and do not understand their jobs.

The increased complexity of disability claims and additional duties also demand strong training programs for both new and current employees. AFGE members routinely report deficiencies in the training provided at ROs.  These deficiencies range from failure to adequately advise employees of the impact of changes in the law to failure to ensure that the training program that certification is designed to test is complete. The provision in P.L. 110-389 for an independent evaluation of VBA’s employee training programs is a crucial component of any strategy to expedite and improve the claims process.  

AFGE urges consideration of the following as part of this training study:

  • The impact of inconsistencies between ROs in the number of hours that management sets aside for employee training;
  • The feasibility of a centralized training program using a cadre of formally training instructors to provide RO training;
  • Increasing manager accountability for noncompliance with training requirements, and the use of manager incentives to improve the quality of training programs.

Work Credit and Work Management Systems

Production requirements driven by fiat and ignorance rather than evidence and analysis will only continue to create incentives for employees and managers to make quantity a higher priority than quality.

VBA has yet to produce evidence that it has undertaken a reliable time and motion study that would enable it to develop an effective system for assigning work credit for different tasks in the claims process. Through the leadership of the Subcommittee and the passage of P.L. 110-389, this greatly needed study is closer to becoming a reality.

An accurate work measurement system will lay the foundation for an effective work management system. Employee workload requirements must be ascertained by reference to valid empirical data. VBA must, with no preconceptions, identify how much an employee can reasonably expected to do with an acceptable level of accuracy, and use that data to project the number of employees it needs to process its inventory. VBA has not adjusted individual employee production standards to reflect the increasing complexity and difficulty of the claims process.  Instead, employees are subjected to arbitrary and unreasonable production standards that lead to inefficient and incomplete claims development. This failure has deprived claimants of full, fair, and timely consideration of their claims, and is largely responsible for VBA’s increasing inventory of claims.

We also endorse the requirement in this law to study ways to simplify the processes for gathering evidence and adjudication of claims.  The insights of front line employees who regularly confront inefficiencies in these processes will be invaluable to this effort.

As part of the study’s focus on measures to improve the accountability of claims process, AFGE recommends consideration of two issues: First, whethermodifying the CPI (Claims Processing Initiative) would enable VBA to better address the backlog and quality problems; and, second, whether the increased use of the practice of brokering cases between ROs has also contributed to delays and quality deficiencies.

 Finally, the requirement that VBA identify “lessons learned” and best practices through analyses of each Regional Office will yield enormous benefits with minimal costs. Over the years, fewer and fewer ROs have set aside the time for claims processing employees to regularly exchange information with their colleagues about how to perform their jobs more effectively.  This simple idea is a valuable learning and efficiency tool that is widely used in many other public and private sector workplaces and has been sorely lacking in many VBA workplaces.

Enhancement of Information Technology

AFGE commends the Subcommittee for its efforts to move VBA beyond a series of unmet promises to fix its outdated IT systems through provisions in P.L. 110-389 for development of a comprehensive plan for technology to support   consistent, accurate and objective claims processing.

A paperless environment is a crucial first step toward this goal. The most immediate benefit of electronic files is the reduction of claims processing time. Adjudicators who can access electronic files will no longer need to delay processing of the claim until arrival of a physical file, and it will be possible to process co-existing claims simultaneously.

AFGE recommends a two-step process for converting to a paperless environment. First, starting with new claims, scan all documents associated with initial claims received so that they are available to adjudicators in an electronic format. This will ensure that claims files going forward will be essentially electronic, and thus, enable VBA to begin the transition to a wholly paperless claims environment.

Second, the contents of any existing claims file that is transferred from or between ROs (for example, as work brokered from one RO to another, or as an appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals) should be scanned.  Transfers of paper files result in significant cost and increase the risk of losing important documents. The scanning of transferred cases would also ensure that documents that are received after the transfer are properly associated with the file in the fastest and most efficient manner. In addition, by providing all adjudicators access to the same information, it would ensure that co-existing claims (for example, appealed issues and new claims) are worked accurately and simultaneously.

Is VBA making effective use of its expanded workforce and training investment?

Over the last several years, Congress has responded to the lack of staff to address the growing backlog by providing funding to expand VBA’s claims processing workforce.  AFGE urges the Subcommittee to investigate reports that significant numbers of new VSRs and RVSRs are fired during their probationary periods for poor performance even though they have not completed mandatory training. It is especially troubling that many of those losing their jobs are veterans who were recently hired under preference rules.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify on the urgency of implementing P.L. 110-389 to reduce the backlog.