Dear Chairmen and Members of the Subcommittees:
The American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO (AFGE), which represents more than 600,000 federal employees who serve the American people across the nation and around the world, including over 160,000 employees in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), is honored to testify today regarding the issues of document tampering and mishandling in the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).
As the labor organization that represents the vast majority of VBA employees, AFGE has a unique ability to offer the insights of the frontline employees who directly process veterans’ claims and handle their claims files, personal documents and medical records. It was very heartening when Secretary Shinseki recognized the VA workforce in his recent testimony before the full Committee as “an immediate and constant source of pride as they demonstrate their dedication to our mission, their devotion to our clients, and their willingness to continue to serve something larger than self.”
We are equally appreciative that the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the Subcommittees holding this hearing regularly seek AFGE’s input on pressing veterans’ issues.
First and foremost, AFGE is firmly committed to working with lawmakers and VBA to eliminate document shredding, tampering and other mishandling. AFGE and all its members, including the large number of VBA employees who have also served in the military, are completely ready, willing and able to help develop solutions that protect veterans’ files and documents without adversely impacting the quality or timeliness of the claims process.
AFGE’s unequivocal position is that improper shredding is totally unacceptable. At the same time, making a veteran wait over six months for his or her claim to be processed also is unacceptable. We believe that VBA could have struck a better balance between these two if it had consulted with front line employees and their representatives prior to implementing its shredding policy. AFGE was only informed of the new policy after implementation and at that point was only able to negotiate a very limited memorandum of understanding with management.
AFGE has come before you on a number of occasions to convey our members’ frustration at the lack of new employee and current employee training that would help them process claims accurately while meeting management’s production quotas. Here too, the employees wanted training to help them fully comply with the forty plus provisions in the new National Code of Behavior. But when management asked them to sign this document without providing any training, they signed because “[a]ny refusal to sign the VA National Rules of Behavior may have an adverse impact on [their] employment with the Department.” (Section 1(i)).
What was the effect of lack of training on the new policies? First, employees are not sure what to shred and what to keep in the file under these new policies. Employees have the incentive to keep extraneous materials in the file rather than expose themselves to the risk of possible discipline for discarding the wrong materials. As a result, the next person, for example the RVSR getting the file from the VSR or the supervisor performing quality control, has to review a much thicker file containing more extraneous pages. Longer review time means longer processing time which translates to larger backlogs.
We also question whether all recently hired Records Management Officers (RMO) received adequate and consistent training at the RO level. Our members report that RMOs have required them to spend unnecessary time going through certain procedures when employees were already in compliance. Here too, a joint labor-management team would have produced a better training program.
The current work credit system is further impeding the effectiveness of the new shredding policies. Employees are reluctant to comb through their files for shreddable documents as that slows down their production. The current work credit system does not credit employees for the time required to stop case production in order to carry out mandatory daily reviews of shreddable materials.
Consultation with frontline employees and their representatives would have also produced efficiencies at the outset as to how employees sort through their files. For example, initially, the employee had to annotate each piece of paper to be shredded with a handwritten explanation and his or her initials. Some, but not all offices, report that new methods are being implemented to speed up this process, such as the use of cover sheets and page stamps. These efficiencies should be encouraged and made uniform across ROs.
Fortunately, Congress has provided VBA with an excellent tool for improving its mentoring process and work management and work credit systems. The Disability Claims Modernization Act (P.L.110-389), requires the VA to undertake studies of these two systems, and requires managers to pass the same skills certification tests as frontline employees. AFGE urges the Subcommittees to ensure that frontline employees and their representatives have the opportunity for meaningful input into the studies mandated by this valuable new law. Also, we urge VBA to restore labor-management collaboration on the skills certification testing process. Only last year, IBM conducted a study of the claims process for VBA without consulting a single frontline employee.
Finally, with regard to shredding, some critics assert that VBA employees discard and mishandle veterans’ claims files because they do not see a real person behind the file. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely the veteran that the employees have in mind when they work through lunch and breaks, come in early and leave late, and study in the evening to do their jobs better. These employees want more training and more credit for quality, not just quantity, because they want the best for the claimant behind that claim number. As AFGE has testified in the past, the VBA workforce experiences tremendous frustration with the chronic obstacles they face in trying to process these claims in a timely and accurate manner.
Backdating of claims
Unfortunately, backdating of VBA claims is not a new phenomenon. Some of our members report receiving “backdating” instructions from managers in years past. AFGE is solidly committed to working with Congress and VBA to get to the root cause of the backdating problem and the perverse incentives in the current system that lead to this practice. Here too, the studies of the work credit and work management systems mandated by P.L.110-389 will provide essential information to address this problem.
Backdating may also be a byproduct of the practice of submitting informal claims prior to submitting formal claims. In order to avoid two different “end product” dates, which affects station timeliness numbers, there is an incentive to choose the later date of the formal claim, which in turn, may reduce the veteran’s retroactive payment. Better technology (including a paperless system) would help VBA keep the two claims properly associated.
Clearly, if the disability claims process were already paperless, many of the problems being considered at this hearing today would no longer exist, including fewer misplaced files.The input of frontline employees and their representatives would ensure a smoother, more effective transformation to a paperless system.
A paperless system also would enable VBA to keep the entire file intact when additional medical evidence or other documentation comes into the RO at a later date because of delays in getting private physician records or because the claimant has new medical evidence of a worsening medical condition.
Multiple file claims also present a problem: Sometimes the RVSR (who is required to review the full file) is only given the most recent file of a multiple file claim.
In the short term, small IT fixes such as an automatic reminder system would enable VBA to keep better track of files that move between ROs for brokering or to the Appeals Management Center, or are temporarily transferred to the treating physician or the C&P examiner. Our members report that brokering between ROs is especially likely to result in lost or misplaced evidence and claims and delayed association of evidence with claims files.
AFGE urges the Subcommittees to further investigate the efficacy of VBA's brokering policies, and solicit the input of frontline employees and their representatives. There is no reason for programs which poorly serve veterans to continue through inertia. VBA should continue policies that are proven to work, and eliminate those which are not.
VBA’s policy of brokering cases from one RO to another also diminishes frontline employees' investment in their work product, since such an "assembly line" approach to developing and adjudicating claims shifts the responsibility for mistakes made by personnel at one RO to those at another RO.
AFGE is also concerned about the impact of a new brokering process using newly created Appeals Resource Centers (ARC) (as detailed in VBA Fast Letter 09-06). This initiative will significantly increase the number of cases in transit, further increasing the risk of file and document misplacement and loss. Notably, VBA management denied the existence of the ARC initiative to AFGE until November of 2008, acknowledging its existence for the first time in the new shredding policy. AFGE’s requests for briefing on this initiative have been denied to date.
With regard to the problem of the widow being denied the full “month of death” check, our members have not reported any management pressures to deviate from the requirement under current law that widows receive the full monthly benefit.
Almost every law firm in this nation, no matter how small, utilizes simple off-the-shelf, out-of-the-box software to manage and track their docket. Clearly, a similar, user friendly electronic tracking system is within VBA’s reach.
AFGE extends its gratitude to the Subcommittees for soliciting our views on these challenging issues. You have AFGE’s full commitment to work with you and VBA to identify the root causes of these problems and work toward solutions that best serve the needs of our veterans.