On January 31, 2019 at 2pm, the Under Secretary for Benefits, Dr. Paul Lawrence, hosted a webcast to discuss the Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA) progress in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019 (i.e. October 1, 2018 – December 31, 2018). He was joined by Dave McLenachen, Executive Director of the Appeals Management Office and Charmaine Bogue, Acting Executive Director of Education Service. Throughout the 30-minute webcast, Dr. Lawrence and his colleagues addressed the following:
- VBA results in quarter one of fiscal year 2019
- How all employees of VBA are working to serve veterans
- VBA’s engagement with veterans
- Updates on Appeals Reform and the Forever GI Bill
- Two questions from Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and the Wounded Warrior Project regarding predatory loans and improved communication
Dr. Lawrence also noted VBA’s three strategic objectives for the remainder of fiscal year 2019, which can be seen throughout VA’s progress and efforts discussed below. These objectives include: (1) providing benefits with excellent customer service, (2) fiscal stewardship, and (3) strong collaboration.
VBA Results in Quarter 1 of Fiscal Year 2019
VBA is one of three administrations within VA, along with the Veterans Health Administration and the National Cemetery Administration. In quarter one of fiscal year 2019, VBA had 24,200 employees, 57 percent of whom are veterans themselves. This administration focuses on providing a variety of benefits and services to service members, veterans, and their families. Below highlights the progress and results of VBA’s eight lines of business.
This office oversees the delivery of disability compensation to veterans who are disabled as a result of their military service. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, VBA completed review of nearly 316,000 claims in a total of 104.5 days, 20.5 days faster than its target goal. Within these claims VBA completed review of 1.6 million issues total, with an average of 5.2 issues per claim, representing a slight increase from the last quarter of fiscal year 2018. Overall, this resulted in 4.8 million veterans getting paid over $21.1 million in disability compensation during this time period. Additionally, Dr. Lawrence reports increased efforts during the first quarter of fiscal year 2019 when it comes to handling claims regarding military sexual trauma and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). VBA has designated specific claims processors to address these claims to ensure they are given the special attention that they require.
In quarter one of fiscal year 2019, VBA received a total of 66,000 Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP) opt-ins, of which it completed review of roughly 37,500 with an average processing time of 124.2 days, and awarded a total of about $155 million in benefits. Furthermore, the Legacy appeals inventory was reduced to about 267,000, which was very close to VBA’s target. VBA’s goal to work all of the pending Legacy appeals by the end of calendar year 2020 remains.
Pension & Fiduciary
VBA offers a needs-based pension for low-income wartime veterans and their survivors. In the first quarter, it paid $1.3 billion in pension benefits to 447,000 veterans and survivors. Here, the number of claims completed were below target and they took longer to complete. However, VBA just started processing pension claims in its National Work Queue with the same approach it took to reduce the disability compensation claims backlog. Dr. Lawrence is hopeful this new method will produce positive results by next quarter.
VA appoints fiduciaries for veterans who are unable to manage their VA benefits on their own. In quarter one of this fiscal year there were 173,000 fiduciaries helping veterans, which is just under the amount from the end of last year. VBA also conducted 19,800 field exams in which employees go to the homes of vulnerable veterans to check on their well-being. Dr. Lawrence noted that the pace of the visits needs to increase in order to match the number of exams that took place last year. However, the administration is currently working on ways to ensure that happens.
In regards to insurance, VBA provides coverage for service members, veterans, and their families. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, VBA provided $1.2 trillion in coverage to 5.9 million individuals with the timeliness of processing insurance disbursements remaining under the 4-day target. VBA has also employed a special project to assist in locating hard-to-find beneficiaries upon an insured veteran’s passing. As a result, 373 of these beneficiaries have been located and paid $1.5 million in death claim benefits.
VBA provides education benefits under many programs such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill (see more below). During this quarter, a total of $3.1 billion was paid to 480,000 veterans. In doing so, VBA’s timeliness increased to a 32.6-day average in October, but evened out in December, dropping below the target by about 5 days. In quarter one VBA was also focused on restoring benefits to veterans after a school closure. There were three new school closures affecting veterans during this time period, but all 1,645 students were notified quickly of their eligibility for restoration of education benefits.
Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment
Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) provides special assistance to a subset of veterans with service-connected disabilities. The goal of VR&E is to get veterans to positive outcomes, which can include employment, independent living, or continuing with school. So far, VBA is on track for its goal of 16,000 positive outcomes this fiscal year. In quarter one, VBA exceeded the number of positive outcomes achieved in quarter one of fiscal year 2018 by 4.1 percent.
Home Loan Guaranty
VA home loan is backed by VA with typically no money down, no mortgage insurance, and limited closing costs. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, VBA guaranteed nearly $35 billion for new home loans and worked with 23,700 veterans in avoiding foreclosure. Additionally, more than 99 percent of home loan certificates of eligibility were processed within 5 days. The Specialty Adapted Housing program also began in this quarter to execute housing adaptations for veterans enrolled in the VR&E program. Adaptations may include accessible bathrooms with roll-in showers, and widened doorways and hallways.
Office of Transition and Economic Development
In this quarter, VBA continued to further its Office of Transition and Economic Development, which is geared towards supporting veterans in their transition from military service to civilian life and assisting them in finding post-service careers.
VBA’s Engagement with the Veterans’ Community
Dr. Lawrence emphasized maintaining a strong level of engagement as one of VBA’s priorities this past quarter. He noted visiting and meeting with many VA employees, Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and veterans across the country. Different engagement activities in this quarter included a roundtable with student veterans at Texas A&M, washing a memorial with Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and Facebook postings on dates of special significance to veterans. Furthermore, VBA conducted over 1,000 outreach events in quarter one, while the Overseas Military Service Coordinators had 4,500 interactions with service members and veterans.
VBA’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2019
VBA’s budget for fiscal year 2019 is $4.4 billion. After quarter one, VBA has spent one-fourth of its budget. Dr. Lawrence indicated such numbers reflect that VBA is on track and managing resources appropriately. He also stated this responsible management of funds is consistent with VBA’s strategic objective regarding fiscal stewardship.
VBA remains committed to transparency and accountability when it comes to its budget for fiscal year 2019. Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined how taxpayer dollars are spent and provided reports to Congress on how agencies can work more efficiently. VBA in particular is working directly with GAO to resolve all potential issues. In doing so, VBA hopes to better serve veterans and get off of the GAO’s high-risk list.
Appeals Modernization Update
Dave McLenachen stated that Appeals Modernization, also known as Appeals Reform, is on time for full implementation on February 19, 2019 after the final regulations were published in January. Decisions made on benefit claims on or after that date will be reviewed in the new system if a veteran chooses to appeal. McLenachen reiterated Appeals Modernization’s goal of providing more options and control for veterans within the review process. Additionally, McLenachen noted that the Appeals Management Office will continue focusing on processing the pending inventory of Legacy appeals while also implementing the new system. The current goal is to have all pending Legacy appeals completed by calendar year 2020. The budget for fiscal year 2019 provides additional funding for the hiring of 605 appeals employees to ensure this goal is met.
Forever GI Bill Update
Charmaine Bogue revisited the current status of the Forever GI Bill reiterating that VA has struggled to implement the final two provisions dealing with housing and repayments. She noted an implementation reset is underway to reflect and re-plan how to deal with these aspects of the bill. VBA has set a new deadline of December 2019 for this implementation. VBA anticipates monthly housing allowance for post-9/11 GI students will be paid as the timeliness of processing these payments continues to improve. Bogue reported that VBA is positioned to complete its work within its target of 24 days for applications and 14 days for re-enrollment. Correcting all payments and issuing checks for the difference for those paid incorrectly this past fall continues to be a priority.
Progress and Results Summary
Towards the end of the webcast, Dr. Lawrence concluded with a summary of VBA’s progress and results. Specifically, he highlighted the following:
- VBA is demonstrating what it is doing with veterans’ money and trust
- VBA’s productivity is on target and high of quality
- Appeals Modernization is on time for full implementation
- The budget for fiscal year 2019 is on target
- VBA rolled out a new office to help transitioning service members and veterans
- VBA continues to address the reset implementation of the Forever GI Bill
- More than 20,000 employees are currently working at VBA to deliver high-quality customer service
- Performance in quarter one of fiscal year 2019 is better than performance in quarter four of fiscal year 2018