Witness Testimony of Mr. Tom Murphy, Director of Compensation Service, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the important partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the various national, state, and county Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs).
As VA moves into the 21st Century, this collaboration establishes the foundation for providing Veterans with the benefits they have earned in a timely and equitable manner. This partnership focuses on assisting Veterans with filing disability claims and receiving appropriate compensation for service-connected diseases and injuries. Trained claims representatives from VA-recognized VSOs provide invaluable guidance to Veterans filing claims and work with employees of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to ensure that complete and accurate information is available to facilitate correct disability and compensation decisions. Office space is provided for these claims representatives in all VA regional office service centers, where they assist with evidence development, view decisions made by VBA employees , and counsel Veterans regarding claims and appeals.
To further the collaborative effort with VSO claims representatives, VBA established a training program and certification process for them. In 2008, the Training, Responsibility, Involvement, and Preparation of Claims (TRIP) program was introduced. The TRIP program was designed to improve overall service to Veterans, as well as improve claims processing timeliness, by instructing the representatives on the requirements for successful claim processing and familiarizing them with VBA computer systems. This web-based course offers multiple video lesson presentations followed by review questions. The course helps participants learn the information needed to pass a multiple-choice final examination. Participants have 45 days from the starting date to complete the course, which is accessible at any time. Successful completion of the program allows claims representatives to be certified and have read-only access to a number of claim processing-related electronic applications that follow the development and adjudication of Veterans’ claims. To date, over 4,100 service organization representatives have registered for the online course, and since 2008, 3,385 representatives have completed the course by passing the final exam. TRIP training is a critical part of VBA’s goals to improve access and transparency to the disability claims process and thereby improve efficiency.
In addition, under VA’s accreditation regulations, VSOs are required to certify every five years that each of their accredited claims representatives continues to be of good character and reputation and has demonstrated an ability to represent claimants before VA. The VSOs must also certify that each accredited representative is either a member in good standing or a paid employee; is accredited and functioning as a representative of another recognized VSO; or, in the case of a county Veteran’s service officer, is a paid county employee, has successfully completed an approved course of training and an examination, and will receive regular supervision or annual training to ensure continued qualification as a representative in the claim process.
As the Committee is aware, VBA has developed and is now implementing its Transformation Plan, a series of tightly integrated people, process, and technology initiatives designed to improve Veterans’ access, eliminate the claims backlog, and achieve our goal of processing all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy in 2015. We are confident that we are on the right path to deliver more timely and accurate benefits decisions to our Nation’s Veterans. VSO involvement in our Transformation Plan is extremely important, especially as we shift from a paper-based to a paperless electronic process system. VBA is committed to providing service organization representatives with the tools to assist with this transformation.
VBA is developing an electronic Stakeholder Enterprise Portal (SEP). This portal will enhance stakeholder involvement in the claims process in a secure environment with identity access tools. VSOs will be able to access SEP, which will facilitate the ability to assist Veterans with online completion of VA form 21-22, Appointment of Veterans Service Organization as Claimant's Representative and the Veteran’s online application for compensation, known as VONAPP Direct Connect (VDC).
Additionally, VBA is working with service organization representatives to implement the fully developed claims (FDC) initiative. The Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2008, Public Law 110-389, section 221(a), directed VA to carry out a one-year pilot program to assess the feasibility and advisability of expeditiously processing fully developed compensation and pension claims within 90 days after receipt of the claim. Based on the favorable results from the pilot, VA expanded and fully implemented the program across all regional offices under existing authority of 38 U.S.C. § 501(a)(4), which provides the Secretary’s authority to prescribe rules and regulations to include establishing the manner in which claims are adjudicated. Claims representatives are critical to the FDC initiative as they assist in gathering supporting evidence for a disability claim and helping the Veteran to certify that no additional evidence is necessary to make a decision on the claim.
Service organization representatives are an integral part of VBA’s Transformation Plan because of their close personal contact with Veterans. VBA constantly seeks to improve the claims process, and service organization representatives serve an important role in that effort.
This concludes my testimony, and I look forward to answering your questions.