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Witness Testimony of Keith M. Wilson, Veterans Benefits Administration, Director of Education Service, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Good afternoon Chairwoman Herseth, Ranking Member Boozman, and members of the Subcommittee.  I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) education benefit programs.  My testimony will highlight workload, staffing, and services provided under the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) – Active Duty (chapter 30 of title 38, United States Code),  the Montgomery GI Bill – Selected Reserve (chapter 1606 of title 10, United States Code), the Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) (chapter 1607 of title 10, United States Code), the Post-Vietnam Era Veterans’ Educational Assistance Program (VEAP) (chapter 32 of title 38, United States Code), and the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance Program (DEA) (chapter 35 of title 38, United States Code).  I will also discuss outreach efforts related to the education benefits and automation tools that support these programs.

The Chapter 30 and Chapter 1606 MGIB programs provide veterans, servicemembers, and members of the National Guard and Selected Reserve with educational assistance, generally in the form of monthly benefits, to assist them in reaching their educational or vocational goals.  The Reserve Educational Assistance Program provides an enhanced benefit for reservists and those in the National Guard who are activated for more than 90 days due to an emergency or contingency as defined by the President or Congress.  Chapter 32 VEAP was the first GI Bill program that required a contribution by the servicemember.  VEAP provides matching contributions for educational programs of participating veterans who first entered on active duty after December 31, 1976, and before July 1, 1985.  Together, these programs assist in the readjustment to civilian life, support the armed services’ recruitment and retention efforts, and enhance the Nation’s competitiveness through the development of a more highly educated and productive workforce.

The Chapter 35 DEA is the only VA educational assistance program designed for spouses, surviving spouses and eligible children of certain veterans.  The program offers up to 45 months of education benefits.  These benefits may be used for degree and certificate programs, apprenticeship, and on-the-job training.  Remedial, deficiency, and refresher courses may be approved under certain circumstances.

Through the end of fiscal year 2006, VA has provided education benefits to more than three million individuals and paid over $27 billion in benefits through the programs that are the subject of this testimony. 

Workload Trends

The education workload has been steadily increasing.  From 2000 through 2006, the number of education claims rose by 430,549, a cumulative increase of 46 percent.  Total claims for 2007 are projected to be 1.4 million, an increase of over 2 percent from 2006.  During the first quarter FY 2007, original claims increased by more than 13,000, or almost 20 percent, over the same period in FY 2006.  We believe this could be an indicator of continuingly increasing usage rates.

Workload Strategy

We have implemented a three-fold strategy to manage the pending inventory and improve claims timeliness involving maximization of current resources, increased staffing, and information technology enhancements.

We initiated a Contract Management Support Center (CMSC) in September 2006.  CMSC is staffed with contract customer service representatives who handle education calls that are received through the toll-free number, 1-888-GIBILL1.  This has allowed the Education Service to allocate 60 additional FTE to processing and deciding education claims. 

We are also increasing staffing levels to handle the additional claims work.  From 2000 through 2006, direct FTE increased by 22 percent, from 591 to 726.  In FY 2006, additional hiring resulted in a net increase of 39 direct FTE.  Production has increased substantially and will continue to increase as new staff become more experienced.  We expect the 758 direct FTE for FY 2007 to handle the anticipated workload increase and continue to improve performance indicators.  We expect to process 1,432,447 education claims in 2008, a 2.4 percent increase over 2007.  We believe that the 772 direct FTE requested in the FY 2008 budget can process the workload and also reverse some of the timeliness deterioration experienced from 2004 through 2006.

In the longer term, we are pursuing IT enhancements and capabilities that will allow us to further automate claims processing and inquiry resolution.  We have developed Internet applications to provide functional support to claims processing and customer service activities.  These tools have helped to improve performance and reduce the waiting time for many claimants.  We are enhancing one of our current self-service Internet applications, Web Automated Verification of Enrollment (WAVE).  The application, used by individuals to verify attendance and change addresses, is being updated to allow claimants to view their electronic claims folders and confirm VA’s receipt of a submitted document.  It is also being expanded to automate changes in direct deposit information.  In the future, we plan to add additional benefit information, such as payment information, remaining entitlement, and delimiting date.  Displaying more information for each individual should reduce the number of inquiries that we receive each year.

VA also uses the RightNowWeb (RNW) inquiry response system to answer general questions submitted electronically without requiring a person to intervene.  RNW is able to respond to basic questions automatically in 95 percent of the inquiries.  In cases where RNW is unable to automatically respond, a person is available to provide assistance in a timely manner.

VA-ONCE, an application that allows school certifying officials to transmit enrollment data electronically to VA, has been in use since FY 2003 and has been well received.  Using data from VA-ONCE, the Electronic Certification Processing (ECAP) system automatically processes enrollment certifications.  In FY 2006, nine percent of our incoming claims, more than 105,000, were processed using these electronic methods.  Seventy three percent of cases had some processing completed before being worked by a VBA employee.  Of the incoming chapter 30 claims, 16 percent were processed automatically.  We are currently pursuing strategies to update ECAP and increase the percentage of automatically processed claims.

The attainment of Education Service’s strategic goals is dependent upon the successful migration from the Benefits Delivery Network (BDN) to the new VBA corporate environment.  The Education Expert System (TEES) will replace current BDN claim and payment processing support.  Additionally, when fully deployed, TEES will receive application and enrollment information and process that information electronically, reducing the need for human intervention.

Performance

This year we are making progress toward achievement of our performance goals.  To date in FY 2007, we have reduced the average age of pending original claims by 30 percent and the average age of supplemental claims by 39 percent from our peak enrollment period in October 2006.  Our targets for the end of FY2007 are to process original claims in 35 days and to process supplemental claims in 15 days. 

Timeliness has improved for supplemental claims processing.  Average days to complete dropped from 20 days in FY 2006 to 16 days for the first quarter of FY 2007.  Average days pending dropped from 23 days in FY 2006 to 15 days for the first quarter of FY 2007.

Average days to complete original claims increased from 40 days in FY 2006 to 46 days for the first quarter of FY 2007.  However, the reduction in average days pending for original claims from 39 days in FY 2006 to 32 days for the first quarter of FY 2007 reflects improvements in timeliness that will be reflected in lower average days to complete in the future. 

Outreach

Expanded outreach to separating servicemembers has lead to increased benefit usage.  We distribute a series of informational brochures targeting servicemembers after 12 and 24 months of active duty and again six months prior to separation from service.  The brochures are specifically tailored toward servicemembers who are eligible for the Chapter 30 MGIB, and designed to enhance their awareness and understanding of the education benefit.  Mailings are sent to approximately 90,000 active duty members on a quarterly basis.  In 2006, VA also conducted more 8,500 transition assistance briefings for nearly 393,000 attendees.

For REAP, our newest benefit, we have distributed more than 300,000 copies of our new REAP brochure to activated Guard and Reserve units nationwide.

More than 46,000 REAP informational DVD discs are being produced, along with almost 65,000 informational discs on both the Chapter 30 and Chapter 1606 MGIB programs.   The goal is to have the informational discs distributed to all military installations by the end of March 2007.  Additionally, we will soon begin direct mailing of REAP informational material to activated Guard and Reserve members as we now do for Chapter 30-eligible servicemembers.

Education Service will continue to enhance current outreach efforts to better serve the informational needs of servicemembers, veterans, reservists, and dependents potentially eligible for or currently using VA education benefits.  We will develop and disseminate informational materials and promotional items to both active duty members and veterans.

Madam Chairwoman, this concludes my statement.  I would be pleased to answer any questions you or any of the other members of the Subcommittee may have.