Witness Testimony of The Honorable Allison Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Good morning, Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Filner, and Members of the Committee. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the actions taken by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to implement the provisions in title II of Public Law 112-56, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. I am accompanied today by Mr. Curtis L. Coy, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity, VBA.
My testimony will discuss implementation of the relevant sections of the legislation, with particular emphasis on section 211. I will also review VA’s outreach activities aimed at enrolling individuals in the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) and promoting the enhanced services provided by VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program. VA is committed to successfully executing, in collaboration with other agencies and stakeholders, all provisions of the law for which we have responsibility.
Section 211 – VRAP
VA and the Department of Labor (DOL) collaboratively developed the VRAP application process and the requirements for the information technology (IT) system changes to support this process. To efficiently leverage existing systems, VA modified its application for VA education benefits for use by the VRAP applicants. The VRAP application is available online at www.benefits.va.gov/VOW, a web site developed specifically for portions of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act. This site can be accessed through eBenefits, the GI Bill web site, DOL web sites, and numerous other web sites. Additionally, Veterans can visit their local DOL One-Stop Career Center locations for application assistance. Applications can be submitted through VA’s Veterans’ Online Application (VONAPP) web site. To be eligible for participation, DOL must determine that the applicant is unemployed, not enrolled in any federal or state job-training program, and is between the ages of 35 and 60. VA verifies the applicant’s Veteran status and type of discharge, and confirms that the applicant has no other VA education benefits available for use, and is not in receipt of compensation for a service-connected disability rated totally disabling by reason of unemployability. After eligibility has been established, the applicant identifies his or her intended high-demand occupation category and applicable training institution. Information about the high-demand occupations, identified by DOL, is available on VA’s VOW to Hire Heroes web site as well as DOL’s web site.
VA began accepting VRAP applications on May 15, 2012, earlier than our original deadline of June 1. In April, VA education claims personnel received training necessary to process VRAP applications and provide notifications of eligibility decisions to applicants through issuance of certificates of eligibility. Claims examiners will use existing systems to process claims and follow similar procedures to those for other benefit programs. VA has provided instruction on aspects of the program that differ from existing benefits. VA’s claims processing IT systems were modified to process and issue payments to VRAP participants. Once the school certifies enrollment for the VRAP student, his or her claim will be processed in the same manner as Montgomery GI Bill claims, using the Benefits Delivery Network. VA will review daily reports on the number of approved participants to ensure compliance with the parameter of the law to approve only 45,000 applications prior to October 1, 2012.
To ensure this program’s success, VA and DOL staff and leadership continue to collaborate and develop implementation strategies, share information, and participate in biweekly meetings to track progress. Internally, VA staff and project managers meet daily to discuss implementation status and ensure we remain on track to meet the July 1, 2012, implementation date.
A comprehensive outreach program was developed to successfully launch and implement VRAP. Reaching the target population of 35 to 60 year old unemployed Veterans presents challenges. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 400,000 unemployed Veterans are between the ages of 35 and 60. If VA and DOL are successful in signing up 99,000 Veterans, then one in four unemployed Veterans in this age range will participate in VRAP. A centralized system to identify eligible Veterans does not exist. Therefore, VA and DOL are working with their numerous stakeholders to reach eligible Veterans, including: other federal, state, and local government entities; Veterans service organizations; non-profit organizations; military associations; military alumni associations; and private companies. The central component of this outreach plan is the VOW web site. Outreach materials and postings on various websites direct interested Veterans and organizations to the VOW web site for additional information. Frequently asked questions, employer information, and VOW fact sheets are also available on the web page.
VA and DOL are working collaboratively to ensure all DOL One-Stop Career Center office staff have the information and tools they need to successfully assist Veterans in applying for VOW benefits. VA will continue to work with DOL to reach as many Veterans as possible.
Prior to opening the VRAP application period on May 15, information about the VOW to Hire Heroes Act was posted on the web sites of numerous organizations, including: DOL, Army (MyArmyBenefits), America’s Job Exchange, Military.com, American Legion Department of Illinois: First Division, Together We Served, Vets Rock, and Blue Star Families.
VA developed an outreach and communication strategy that focuses on several areas. This strategy leverages multiple outreach methods to ensure that VA reaches the target population of 35-60 year old unemployed Veterans. We have implemented a comprehensive mix of web-based outreach and direct stakeholder engagement to reach Veterans who may not use the internet as their primary method of learning about benefits.
Emails and Letters
Since March 2012, VA has emailed individuals and groups with the potential to reach over four million Veterans. VA emailed: 121,000 Veterans and 2,700 employers who use VetSuccess.gov, over 16,000 registered VA4Vets users, and over 80 non-profit organizations. We have also posted a message on the eBenefits message center. The results have been encouraging. For example, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) will distribute VRAP information to all Servicemembers, National Guard and Reserve members, military retirees, and federal civilian employees.
VA used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to identify areas with the highest Veterans’ unemployment. VA emailed the local government officials in the 100 counties with the highest Veterans’ unemployment to request their assistance in sharing the message about the VRAP program and VA’s acceptance of applications starting on May 15, 2012.
This month, VA initiated a VRAP email campaign to individuals who contacted VA via our electronic internet inquiry system within the past six months. VA also developed an email subscription that allows individuals to sign up to receive emails regarding the program. As of May 15, 2012, VA delivered over 460,000 emails, which were viewed or opened by 23 percent of recipients (which is 12 percent above the average “open rate” according to MailerMailer®). Additionally, we reached out to several direct-mail organizations to explore the potential for limited direct-mailings to Veterans.
VA is leveraging its social media to reach the target population. As of May 14, we have posted 15 Facebook messages on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, VBA, and VA Facebook pages to publicize information about VRAP. The posts provide general program information and salary outlooks for specific high-demand career fields. These posts yielded over 1,600 “shares,” 1,200 “likes,” and 250 “comments.” VA has posted 13 tweets on the VA and VBA Twitter accounts, which resulted in 174 “retweets” and 37 “favorites.” Also, on May 10, 2012, VA posted a blog entitled “Coming Soon: A Program to Retrain Vets.” Additionally, on May 15, the day VA began accepting VRAP applications, the White House’s Joining Forces Team sent out a blog notice that reached almost 1.4 million individuals.
VA met with representatives from Google and is developing plans for advertisements on the web site in June. We posted VRAP information on web sites of more than 20 LinkedIn groups that include about 235,000 members. The groups included military networking groups, Veteran groups, and industry networking groups.
Media and Partnerships
Several newspapers and media outlets have or will publish free of charge VRAP advertisements. Publications include: Federal, Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps Times; the Fayetteville Observer (Fort Bragg); and the San Antonio Express News. These papers have a readership of over 300,000 subscribers, which does not include the free Military Times publications provided to military units. Additionally, many companies have agreed to include VRAP information on their web sites and in their newsletters.
VA is working with employers and community organizations to distribute information about VRAP. VA routinely monitors media coverage of Veterans’ employment to find and post information regarding upcoming job fairs and events on VA Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. In recent months, VA has highlighted VRAP in a variety of interviews and articles related to Veteran unemployment. Media outlets publishing information from VA include: the Atlanta Journal, USA TODAY, the Wall Street Journal, and the Pittsburgh Gazette.
VA is using available internal and external mechanisms to reach as many unemployed Veterans as possible. VA held numerous meetings and discussions with stakeholders, such as the United States Automobile Association, LinkedIn, Armed Forces Services Corporation, and the National Governors’ Association. VBA collaborated with VA’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership office, which will outreach and provide program information to over 1,200 community organizations, and Veterans service organizations, Veterans alumni groups, non-profit organizations that serve Veterans, and community organizations in states with high unemployment rates. VA asked State Approving Agency partners and over 900 vocational rehabilitation contract counselors to carry our message. VA field staff continue to participate in local job fairs, and we have placed particular emphasis on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes Job Fairs. VA will also conduct a three-day Hiring Fair and Open House from June 26-28, 2012 and its annual National Veteran Small Business Conference and Expo.
All of VA’s outreach efforts are focused on distributing information about VRAP and directing individuals to the VOW web site for additional information. Prior to VA accepting VRAP applications on May 15, there were almost 17,000 visitors to the VOW web site, and over 13,000 unique individuals signed up for VRAP emails.
Section 222 – Individualized assessment on equivalence between military occupational specialty (MOS) and qualifications for private sector employment
The Department of Defense (DoD) will provide the individualized assessments to Servicemembers and share the assessments with DOL and VA following the study that DOL expects to begin by October 2012 and complete in November 2013. VA’s VR&E Service is collaborating with DoD and DOL on the scope of the study. VA uses the assessments to develop education and employment goals for transitioning Servicemembers who have applied for education or VR&E benefits. This provision of the law will enhance our beneficiaries’ ability to meet their academic and career objectives.
Section 231 – Two-year extension to provide Vocational Rehabilitation to Servicemembers
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between VA and DoD is in place that covers this two-year extension, and VR&E Service has issued procedures for immediate implementation. This MOU covers VR&E counseling for Servicemembers transitioning through the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) at designated locations. Early access to VR&E services and assistance offers Servicemembers resources that aid their recovery, transition, and reintegration into civilian life. Eligible Servicemembers are referred to VR&E if they are: evaluated by a DoD or VA physician and are determined to have a severe injury or illness that could cause their referral into IDES; assigned to a Service’s Wounded Warrior Program and are participating in the Education and Employment Initiative (E2I) program; or being processed through IDES and referred to a Physical Evaluation Board. The IDES project plan, which provides for 110 VR&E counselors to be stationed at selected IDES sites in FY 2012, will enable aggressive implementation of this section. VR&E Service issued guidance and began providing these services in February 2012 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada; and the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, California. Additional locations have been identified, and VA is coordinating with DoD to secure the space needed for full implementation.
Section 232 – Expand VA authority to reimburse salaries of Veterans’ participating in a VR&E program
Section 232 of the bill allows VA to expand the Special Employer Incentive (SEI) program to Veterans participating in a VR&E program, even if the Veteran has not completed a training program under VR&E. VR&E issued procedures and staff training to implement this provision in January 2012. Employers who hire Veterans will receive up to a 50 percent reimbursement of the Veteran's salary during the SEI program, which typically lasts up to six months, while also receiving supplies, equipment, uniforms, and any necessary accommodations. VA is responsible for determining eligibility, and participants have an increased chance of being hired for permanent employment. Veterans learn valuable skills in practical settings while receiving one-on-one support from their Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor or Employment Coordinator.
Section 233 – Additional VR&E services to Veterans with exhausted rights to unemployment benefits
VR&E has worked with DOL to identify and conduct outreach to Veterans who may qualify for an additional 12 months of vocational rehabilitation services under section 233 of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act. VR&E instructed field personnel to begin accepting referrals and applications in February 2012. VR&E issued final procedures and training to the field in May 2012, so that individuals may begin rehabilitation programs by June 1, 2012, the effective date of this provision.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other Members of the Committee may have.