Statement from VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald
Last week I presented to the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee the way forward for the important transformation of the Department of Veterans Affairs—what we call MyVA. We aim to improve our care and services to all Veterans. In order to do that, I made clear that we would need Congress’ help in legislating a fair, streamlined, and comprehensive process for new appeals, as well as providing much needed resources to address the current pending inventory of appeals. I look forward to working with all stakeholders to design an appeals process that better serves Veterans.
VA will need legislation and resourcing to put in place a simplified appeals process that enables the Department to resolve the majority of our appeals in a reasonable timeframe for Veterans.
The appeals process we currently have set in law is failing Veterans—and taxpayers. Decades worth of law and policy layered upon each other have become cumbersome and clunky. Most importantly, it is now so antiquated that it no longer serves Veterans well as many find it confusing and are frustrated by the endless process and the associated length of time it can take to get an answer.
In 2012, VA made the commitment to end the disability claims backlog. It took too long for Veterans to receive a decision on their claim. Our commitment has resulted in transformational change. The disability claims backlog has been driven down to fewer than 82,000, from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013. At the same time, we have fully transitioned to a paperless, electronic processing system, eliminating 5,000 tons of paper a year. Last year, we decided 1.4 million disability compensation and pension claims for Veterans and survivors – the highest in VA history for a single year and that comes on the heels on two previous record-breaking years of productivity.
As VA has become more efficient in claims processing, the volume of appeals has increased proportionately. While it remains true that 11-12 percent of Veterans who receive a disability rating file for an appeal, more processed claims means more appeals. This is VA’s next challenge.
The current pending inventory of appeals stands at more than 440,000 and is estimated to grow rapidly. Right now, Veterans who file an appeal wait an average of three years for appeals to be resolved by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and an average of five years for appeals that reach the Board of Veterans Appeals’ (Board), with thousands lasting much longer. That’s unacceptable.
We are applying lessons learned from the transformative change that allowed us to reduce the disability claims backlog. Like our work with the claims processing, the appeals process will need changes in people, process and technology. Upgraded technology will make changes to our mail system and paper records, and incorporate some efficiencies in the way appeals are managed and processed. Retraining and increased staff will be necessary. But they will not be enough. We must also look critically at the many steps in the current complex appeals process used by VA and by Veterans and their advocates to design a process that better serves Veterans.
A new appeals process would provide Veterans with the timely and fair appeals decisions they deserve, and adequate resourcing that permits the VBA and the Board to address the growing inventory of appeals.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald told lawmakers on Thursday that by the end of 2016 veterans who walk into or call a VA medical center will have their clinical needs addressed “that day,” while 90 percent of veterans appealing a compensation decision will — with Congress’ help — get an answer within one year.
The ambitious commitments were two of a dozen “breakthrough priorities” that McDonald detailed for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Eight of the priorities are specific to serving veterans and four are to meet department needs, but McDonald said Senators should “make no mistake — all 12 are designed to improve the delivery of timely care and benefits to veterans …. We understand this will be a challenge, but we are committed to producing results for veterans.”
The priorities also include:
— Having all VA medical centers fully staffed up front with knowledgeable service-oriented employees.
— Making sure vets needing to see a community provider do so within 30 days at least 85 percent of the time.
— A disability claims backlog no more than 10 percent of inventory.
— A more intuitive and efficient website for accessing information.
— A well-staffed and courteous crisis hotline reachable by all veterans 24/7.
— A more efficient and understandable compensation and pension exam process.
— Continued progress in ending chronic veteran homelessness.
— Ensuring all VA employees are trained to high customer-service standards.
— Having 95 percent of all medical center directorships filled.
— Closing 100 percent of current cybersecurity weaknesses.
— Ensuring that half of all information technology projects are on time and on budget, with IT executives’ performance goals tied to strategy goals.
— A more efficient medical-supply chain that will result in $150 million in cost avoidances redirected to veteran programs.
One of the hurdles McDonald will face is in taming the growing backlog of appeals claims, which in some cases have dragged on for eight years as veterans continue to add evidence to their case.
The process has been complicated as well in recent years as a result of VA working to reduce its first-time disability claims backlog. McDonald reported that the claims backlog — those not acted on within 125 days of filing — has been reduced from its 2013 peak of 611,000 to 82,000.
The progress was made over several years in part because the VA put additional personnel on the problem and then by moving from the traditional paper-based system to one an entirely electronic one.
“We decided 1.4 million disability compensation and pension claims for Veterans and survivors — the highest in VA history for a single year” because of the new system, McDonald said.
But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said the emphasis on first-time claims only increased the number of appeals and “simply shifted the problem.”
“And so the 440,000 appeals that currently are pending is, in my view, unacceptable,” Blumenthal said.
McDonald did not dispute the issue, but pointed out that taming the appeals backlog is “one of our breakthrough objectives.”
“Assuming we can work together on the legislation, we are planning to get 90 percent of appeals resolved within one year. And I think we can all sign up for that objective,” McDonald said.
Under current law veterans may continue to add evidence to their file, which helps to draw out the decision time.
McDonald said the law was developed some 100 years ago and needs to be changed.
He did not spell out how he would change it but said he wants to work with Congress to come up with a solution.
Thank you Community Military Appreciation Committee for inviting MyVA Cascadia Co-Chairs Kim Douthit and Tom Mann to your meeting this morning at the 40 et 8 facility in Vancouver. We are excited to work with you and your member organizations to determine gaps in services and resources for veterans and their families in southwest Washington and find workable solutions through existing and new strategic partnerships. Can’t wait to get started!
A big THANK YOU to Tony Molina and Chinook Winds for hosting the MyVA Cascadia Board meeting January 14, 2016. You were fabulous hosts and we are so grateful to have you as a partner in the work to improve services and resources for veterans and their families!
The MyVA Cascadia Board will hold a public town hall meeting February 25, 2016, in Portland at the Montavilla Baptist Church, 9204 SE Hawthorne Blvd. from 6-8 p.m. for Veterans, their families, and community leaders to brainstorm new strategies to existing Veteran issues.
Unlike many Veteran forums, individual Veteran case issues will not be the focus; VA representatives will be available to discuss those issues privately. Instead, the meeting will be a working event where participants will be asked to provide their priorities and ideas to solve those issues using all the resources within the community in partnership with the VA.
“This town hall may be a little different than what has been done in the past,” said MyVA Cascadia Co-Chair Tom Mann. “We all know the issues – access to benefits and health care, mental health, women Veterans, transportation, education, homeless vets, education, employment, Veteran suicide, reintegration, incarcerated Veterans, tribal Veterans, aging Veterans, and the rest – what we don’t know is the priority on the ground for each individual community and how they want to go about addressing those priorities.”
My VA Cascadia plans to hold regular public town hall meetings throughout the VA Portland Health Care System (VAPORHCS) catchment area which includes 26 counties across Southwest Washington, the Portland Metro area, the coast from Astoria to Newport, south to Corvallis/Philomath, and east to Central Oregon.
“One size doesn’t necessarily fit all,” said MyVA Cascadia Co-Chair Kim Douthit. “We need to go out to each community and really listen to what they want to address and then develop creative solutions in partnership with the VA, state and local government, non-profit organizations, the business community, the faith-based community and others who intersect Veterans and their families.”
The MyVA Cascadia Board is a Veteran’s engagement network of about 12 Veteran service providers, advocates, and other key community stakeholders focused on improving outcomes for Veterans and their families. The board is chaired by two community leaders who will help drive a shared understanding among stakeholders of the complex challenges that Veterans and transitioning service members face.The MyVA Cascadia Board was formed in late 2015 based on the Veterans Affairs MyVA Community model called myVA, but it is not a VA organization.
For further information about MyVA Communities, please visit: http://www.va.gov/icbc/myVA.asp
To learn more about MyVA Cascadia, please visit: http://www.myvacascadia.com. Questions and suggestions can be submitted via firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to MyVA Cascadia, PO Box 3576 Salem, OR 97302.
Responding to the need to integrate community and Veteran Affairs resources, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has commissioned a MyVA Communities Board for the Portland VA Health Care System with the goal of expanding resources, options and opportunities for military veterans and their families.
MyVA Cascadia is an independent board which is dedicated to developing meaningful resource partnerships with established community organizations, leaders and programs focused on meeting the needs of the diverse veteran population and their families in the VA Portland Health Care System catchment area. The Portland VA Health Care System catchment area is the largest in Oregon and includes SW Washington, the Portland Metro area, the coast from Astoria to Newport, south to Corvallis/Philomath, and east to Central Oregon.
“This is an exciting opportunity to build on the work that many organizations have previously done in partnership with VA to allow veterans and the community to develop and implement new local strategies to solve on-going veteran issues,” said MyVA Cascadia Co-Chair Tom Mann who formerly was the Administrator of Veterans’ Services at the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
“VA Secretary McDonald understands that veterans at the local community level know what they need and that by working within individual communities VA, non-profits, business leaders, government agencies, the faith-based community, the education community and others they can work together much more effectively than they have been able to under previous VA approaches,” said Kim Douthit, also a Co-Chair of My VA Cascadia and Veterans Resource Specialist at Portland Community College Sylvania Campus.
MyVA Communities is one leg of a larger VA transformation plan aimed at putting the veteran first and allowing veterans to drive VA priorities instead of those priorities being developed in Washington, DC. My VA Community boards have been established in (NEED LIST OF PLACES HERE).
“Our plan is pretty simple,” Mann said. “We will go out into each community within the catchment area and ask veterans and their families to tell us their priorities and how they would like those priorities met. Then we will work with everyone within the community to make that happen whether it be a VA solution, a government solution, a private sector solution, or a faith-based solution or some combination,” he said.
To that end, MyVA Cascadia will be holding a town hall meeting February 25, 2016 from 6-8 p.m. at the Montavilla Baptist Church, 9204 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland, OR 97216. Unlike many veteran forums individual veteran case issues will not be the focus; VA representatives will be available to discuss those issues privately. Instead, the meeting will be a working event where participants will be asked to provide their priorities and what strategies they would develop to solve those issues using all the resources within the community in partnership with the VA.
My VA Cascadia is made up of the following members:
- Tom Mann – Co-Chair: Former Administrator for Veterans’ Services Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs; Service-Connected Disabled Veteran (Army)
- Kim Douthit – Co-Chair: Veterans Resource Specialist Portland Community College (Sylvania Campus) and former Washington County Veteran Service Officer
- 1st LT Beth Conn, MSW, LCSW – Director of Psychological Health at the Oregon National Guard
- Belle Landau – Executive Director of the Returning Veterans Project
- Tonja Pardo – United States Department of Labor Veterans’ Employment And Training Service – Director, State of Oregon
- Stephen Koyen – Mentor Coordinator Marion County Veterans Court
- Ana Kuhl – Former Military Spouse and Family Assistance Coordinator Oregon National Guard
- Eric Ensley – Multnomah County Veterans’ Service Office Director
- SGM Philip (Vinny) Jacques – Combat Wounded Iraq Vet (ORANG 2/162 2005) and former Director Oregon Reintegration Team
- Cameron Smith – Director Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs and former Marine Corps Officer
- Tony Molina – Veterans Coordinator Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians
- Lisa Watson – Central City Concern Homeless Veteran Coordinator
- SSG Eddie Black – Oregon National Guard Resiliency Trainer
- Jonathan Sanford – Legislative director, historical outreach foundation; former veteran representative United States Senator Ron Wyden
- Joanne Krumberger – Director Portland VA Health Care System
- Kevin Kalama – Acting Director Portland VA Regional Office
- George Allen – Director Willamette National Cemetery
For further information about My VA Communities, please visit: http://www.va.gov/icbc/myVA.asp