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Veterans Benefits Amid COVID-19

Recorded on April 2, 2020

Video Transcription:

Robert Chisholm: Webinar today on your VA practice, and we have a number of distinguished panelists here today to talk about how we’re all dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. So, let me do a short introduction to everyone who’s here, and then we’re going to start.

First up we have from the Director of the Providence Regional Office, EJ McQuade. He’s on the phone only. EJ is responsible both as Director for the Providence Regional Office and the Hartford Regional Office. And he’s going to be the first speaker. Zach Stolz, my partner at CCK, is also going to be speaking. Mason Waring, another one of my partners, is going to be speaking. Brad Hennings is going to be speaking, as well as Courtney Ross. And Christine Clemens is going to be responding and fielding questions.

Please feel free to use the Q&A function. It should be working. We’ll try and answer as many questions. What we wanted to do this afternoon is to share our experience and hear what you all are experiencing, so that hopefully we can continue to serve our veteran clients as best we can during this crisis.

So, without further ado, I’m going to turn it over to EJ. EJ, as I said, is the Director of the Providence Regional Office. He has been very open and candid with us through this crisis, and since he’s taken on the responsibility as a director always willing to help out, and we look forward to hearing what you have to say EJ take it away.

EJ McQuade: Thank you, Robert. Good afternoon everybody. Thank you for the opportunity. One, I’m wishing you all the best and your families during this very, very difficult period.

Robert has given me a few questions to speak to, and I wanted to start off with that. As Robert said, I’m the Director at the Providence Regional Office, also the Acting Director at the Hartford Regional Office in Connecticut. In Providence, we also have a couple of national missions as well, so able to speak to some of the DOD partnerships that VA has and any questions that folks may have.

Also joining me is my Public Affairs Officer, Mark Ramos. He is on Zoom. Mark is going to be assisting me and certainly with any Q&A that comes up or anything I can’t speak to.

What I want to do is start with some of the topics that Robert asked me to speak to. First was an overview of how regional offices are functioning in the current right now. Let me just be as clear as I can. I can’t really speak to every single operation nationally, but what I can assure you, everyone on this call, is that VBA is open, VA is open, medical centers, regional offices.

When I say open, what I mean is that we are processing claims and all the other business line functions that we perform, whether that’s fiduciary, loan guarantee, education, vocational rehabilitation. VBA is not closed. All operations are continuing, but they are continuing remotely.

What you should know is that VBA has moved into a maximum telework-type situation, and I’m going to really speak to VBA, not VHA, although I was just at the Newington VAMC yesterday, where the Hartford Regional Office is located. So, if any of those questions do come up, I can answer some, but a lot going on in the VHA world right now.

But essentially all regional offices have gone to a maximum telework posture, and really that includes the overwhelming population of our workforce. There is only a very small number of VBA employees that are unable to telework, and we have gotten very creative as an agency and found other functions for those folks who normally or traditionally would not be teleworking, folks that essentially perform public contact type operations or mail room type functions.

So, you know, every office is configured a little bit differently, but what you all should know is that all those employees are presently working in a virtual capacity or remote capacity, so we are very much open for business.

That being said, all walk-in traffic, public-facing, whether that is public contact, VR&E, hearing, stuff like that, those types of things have moved to a remote type function, but we are not seeing outward facing public traffic at the moment. I think that’s been pretty well communicated.

I do not have an end date for that, but public contact operations as they have traditionally been known are not operating. That is not happening. We are not seeing walk-in traffic as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, but we are very much open for business in a virtual capacity.

So I wanted to really make sure everyone heard that. You should be hearing that from the offices that you work with, but I know if there was any confusion there, and it does sound like in some parts of the country there was some miscommunication, but we are very much open for business and continuing to process claims, and doing that very well.

I will tell you that, you know, from a claims processing operation, and that includes appeals. We’ve been telework capable for quite some time, and in some ways we’re grossly exceeding a lot of performance metrics because we don’t have some of the typical distractions or things that would normally occur during the workday when folks are in the office, so that’s currently underway right now.

The second question, are our regional offices closed for walk-ins? Yes. Yes. Yes. We’re not seeing public-facing traffic right now. We have redirected those public contact operations. They are still engaging, many of us are doing, you know, correspondence type things. Here in Rhode Island, we have some partnerships at the State level where we do some correspondence there, where folks can submit inquiries through the Rhode Island Serves, which is actually an America Serves product. Those folks are still essentially serving veterans, but they’re just doing it remotely, not in person.

So yeah, for walk-in traffic, we are currently closed, that’s all of VBA, all regional offices, and out-based facilities. So, if you’re saying what about the VA public contact aboard Fort Bragg. Yes, they are not seeing walk-in traffic right now, either. So that is the case for right now. Same with VR&E, with our Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment. Counseling is still very much taking place, but taking place via tele-counseling. We are not seeing veterans in person right now. And when that will stop and will go back to normal operations, I really can’t speak to. I can’t imagine any time before May at this time.

But I did want to share that, that we are very much open for business. We are still processing claims, processing all the business functions that we perform, but we are not open for walk-in traffic. The same goes for our VSOs. I will share with you, any VSO that is co-located with a regional office. They may be still working at the regional office, they may still be going in, but they are not seeing walk-in traffic at this time. If they’re doing that, they’re doing it outside of the regional office. So, wanted to share that with you, as I know many of you have close VSO partnerships.

What is happening with compensation and pension exams? So, a lot is the best way I can put it, and it’s rapidly evolving. It’s not a one size fits all, but we are absolutely using telehealth exams, and of course not every C&P exam is telehealth really capable, but certainly, that is an issue right now that is evolving rapidly. The way we’re trying to get around that as an agency for VBA is through using acceptable clinical evidence. The ACE exams, as many of you have heard about, where we can use clinical evidence to make a determination. We are still working on rating claims. We are, for any exam that C&P exam that has been canceled, and many have as many C&P units have been repurposed for different VHN operations, as well as the fact that many veterans are not willing to travel right now. That is all being addressed, and those exams are being rescheduled.

We are using contract exams in many cases, some of our contract exam providers, but that really drastic  regionally, as many of those contract exam providers have essentially started canceling exams because of the COVID-19 crisis. But the thing I wanted to make sure that you all know is that that is a topic that is being addressed at several levels, certainly at the compensation service level as well as locally. And essentially what you’ve seen in the last 30 days as we’ve started to see a lot of exams canceled and then rescheduled. And VHA has a variety of different ways where they’re putting a flag on them to be rescheduled 60 days later. And that could be beyond that. Or, in some cases, they’ve been redirected to a contract provider. In other cases, we are using workarounds, things like acceptable clinical evidence to grant when we can.

So ACE is not something that’s new, but that is a workaround to the compensation and pension exams in addition to telehealth. A lot of certainly telehealth resources being used within VBA for a variety of functions, but specifically exams as well as were applicable as well as VR&E. VR&E is one that I think, again, a lot of tele counseling taking place there. So that is really the posture that we are in for C&P exams at this moment. But definitely subject to change.

What is happening with mail? And let me just say, I’ve worked at seven different regional offices in my 15 years with VBA, two or three as a director, a couple as a service center management type. But every regional office is configured differently. Many of you know that. Some are co-located with other federal agencies; some are co-located with medical centers; some are in standalone buildings; some are in federal buildings. So, the reason I share that is that all of our mail operations at the regional office are somewhat different, somewhat unique, I would say. But what I can tell you is really going on is that mail is still being processed. What you can expect is that we are going to be shipping more mail to our scanning vendors so that that’s being processed correctly, or I’m sorry, being sent to scanning, so it’s not being held up.

At many regional offices, and I can speak to Providence and Hartford specifically, we had a small skeleton crew of folks coming in, mostly supervisors once or twice a week to do the mail to make sure that mail is getting distributed to our VSOs, getting sent to the scanning vendor, being appropriately processed. So that’s something that’s occurring at most regional offices right now, where you have a small skeleton crew of individuals in the office maybe two or three days a week making sure that mail is not being backlogged. And then at the national level, what’s happening is we are looking, VBA is having mail sent directly to scanning vendors so that it can be scanned and processed electronically.

So, now I say that, but every regional office performs different mail functions. Some perform mail functions for other agencies, VA or other, some that are co-located with hospitals have different mail processes. So, a lot of that is being flushed out really last week and this week and probably over the next couple of weeks. But the long-term solution is having more of our mail directly sent to the scanning vendors. And again, we’ve done a lot of their automation-wise mail operations. So, that’s kind of really what is happening with mail. But it has been a major topic for VBA, looking at how do we leverage technology, how do we make sure that mail is being processed correctly? How do we make sure that mail is not backing up as it’s coming into the regional offices? So literally a daily topic on a national call that’s being addressed.

Again, kind of following on top, receiving and uploading mail into VBMS, that’s really the solution, is getting more to the scanning vendor. So that’s really what’s happening. And what you might see, I think, what you can expect to see is more mail that traditionally would not have gone to the scanning vendor. Going there, things like finance type actions and things like that. So, that might be something that we need to flush out as an agency. But as we’re having mail essentially redirected from the postal office directly to scanning, you may see more things, more documents, and VBMS, not less. But that is really the solution there. In terms of any impact on informal conferences, a lot. I would just say a lot. All non-essential travel has been canceled, and that’s going on close to 30 days almost at this point. VBA has canceled as well as really all federal agencies as far as I’m aware, non-essential travel. So, any sort of conference that you would have been expecting that would have been in-person look for that to be, not necessarily canceled but conducted virtually.

And really that’s what you are doing today. And kudos to CCK, they couldn’t make the event happen and that they were looking towards, it’s a magnificent facility for those who haven’t been there. But, hey, here we are doing it remotely.

So that’s what you can look forward to for any sort of informal conferences. Also, recognizing that in there a lot of times its hearings is, I know what is the most interesting, the most pressing for you all. So, I can’t really speak to what VBA is doing specifically. I know that they are doing a lot to do more remote hearings, more tele-hearings, things like that. I’m assuming some may be done over the phone, if they can’t make a video happen.

But that is a topic that is out there. I’m not really able to speak to what VBA is doing, but at the local level, we’ve postponed several hearings or try to make them happen remotely, leveraging technology, but recognizing that not every veteran can do that. So, there is a major impact to any sort of hearing type operation. But again, VBA will adapt and overcome there and make sure that those veterans are still serviced and certainly making sure that hearings and travel boards and stuff that we are not getting too far behind there is an absolute priority with any of our appellate workload.

Legacy backlog cases, getting through the backlog, folks, I’m happy to report that we are processing well over 7,000 disability compensation claims a day and have been, I think, more in this fiscal year per day, that is quite a number. That’s something that used to be somewhat thought to be unachievable and now it’s becoming a daily event.

So the backlog cases are very much being worked. Of course, the biggest challenge there is the exam portion right now. And again, same with the NOD inventory. You all are probably very familiar with the secretary and the undersecretaries’ goals of essentially working through our NOD inventory this year, that is very much underway. I can tell you that there has been no let-up there and I’ve done as much to expect for us to hit all of those targets and exceed them.

And then the last topic that I’ve had from you was any advice for VA practitioners? Stay flexible is the best thing I would say, stay solution-driven. Know that there is absolutely no incentive for VBA to be kicking cans down the road. We want to be doing the work that we can be doing, and we’re actively finding solutions to any sort of limitations that we’re experiencing. And a lot of those aren’t really centered, or I would say around exams right now.

But at the same time, we have assumed a maximum telework type posture and been in that for several weeks here in the Northeast. We did that very quickly, as one of the first areas hard hit and same with the Pacific Northwest, but the entire agency is in that posture now and expected to remain in that posture. So, when it comes to that advice, I would say recognize that flexibility is key and we are still working to provide all of our services.

So if you’re getting any of those questions about, is this going to… If a hearing is postponed, expect that to be rescheduled and that we’ll be actively working those things. So, with that, I’ve talked for a couple of minutes. I don’t want to dominate; I did want to open it up for any questions. And of course, before I do that, Mark, please, is there anything I missed or anything you wanted to add?

Mark Ramos: EJ, can everyone hear me, by the way?

Robert: Yup, we can hear you.

Mark: Okay. I’ve joined on the phone. I couldn’t get any sound from my iPad. So, but anyway, the only other thing I might have to add is that I’m aware that VBA is trying to leverage VA video connect for hearings. I heard some chatter about that, and I jumped in very late on a call earlier this week, but I think the VBA is trying to leverage the VA video connect for hearings and encouraging people to participate in that. So, and the other thing too, I think that probably should be mentioned, is that VBA did increase their full-time veterans’ law judge numbers. So, as they’re trying to certainly keep up with the inventory, that’s there.

And the other thing too about mail handling is that and this may not be all that relevant, but our centralized mail portal is now also accepting mail or scanning mail from our Volk rehab staff through that portal as well. So the Volk rehab folks who have been transitioning into a paperless claim system as we did with comp and pension a few years ago, they’re now in that phase. And so there’s even more activity in that centralized mail portal.

And I think what this means is that more and more, I think VBA is going to be looking for claimants to interact with us remotely, certainly in the near future, to interact with us remotely more often than not.

EJ McQuade: Yeah. Good points, Mark. Thank you. With that, Robert, happy to answer any questions that people have to the best of my ability.

Robert: I think we have a couple for you. Christine’s going to hit those questions with you now. Thanks, EJ.

Christine Clemens: and working as essential? Yes.

EJ McQuade: I can hear you, Christine. Go ahead.

Christine: Can you hear me?

EJ McQuade: I can hear you, yes. Yes.

Christine: Perfect. So, let me just repeat that in case anyone didn’t hear me. Does VBA expect that the scanning vendors will stay staffed and working as essential?

EJ McQuade: Yes, great question. Essentially. Great. Yes, great question. Well, and again, we have a contract provider that largely in Janesville, where I know, many of you are familiar, but yes, it’s my understanding that they are considered essential, and they’re doing a lot of the precautions that several essential functions are doing to keep their workforce healthy and safe. But they are a contract provider. My understanding is that yes, they will. They’ve even added resources to account for the new increased inventory. So, there shouldn’t be any degradation in services. And I’ll just add, Christine, VBA has made a lot of strides in automating mail. Essentially, if not all folks touching it at the scanning vendor; a lot of this has been automated. And I don’t know all of the technical inner workings, but I know enough that that’s really part of the solution here is that it’s not all once it goes to scanning, there’s many bots doing the work, not necessarily humans touching and scanning each one. So, I hope that helps there.

Christine: Great, thanks. Another question for you, which is whether you can address VBMS and E-Folder Express. The outages, there seem to be outages happening every day, which is more frequent than before everyone was removed to telework. Can you address whether anything is being done to address those outages, to reduce those outages?

EJ McQuade: Yes. Great question. And, let me say that absolutely. Our OBP, our Office of Business Process Innovation is sort of the IT arm of VBA, and absolutely, there’s been a lot of outages reported. I will say that many of those… One we’ve done, some of the outages have been directly linked to some load testing. We are seeing more users of VAY, not only VBA, because now you have the VHA load as well, working remotely. So there has been a lot of testing done, what’s commonly referred to as load testing, to make sure that our systems stay operational. During some of those tests have been some of those outages. Or, even if it hasn’t been an outage, it’s been a slowdown.  No one that there is work being done around the clock to make sure that our systems stay operational and that the loads stay balanced.

However, I will say I’ve heard, and I know Mark has too, that we have heard that several of our private attorney types have lost system access or some type of VBMS access. They either had to be restored or for a short period over the last couple of weeks, over, really, the last two weeks. So, before I turn it over to Mark to add some clarity there, that is a known that’s been brought up. I will tell you that we’ve heard anecdotally from about a few VSOs, I have not heard any directly from Providence or Hartford, but there have been some outage periods that have… And of course, those have been oftentimes during prime working hours when we’ve had the most users on.

A lot of that has been associated with our load testing. But you know, by and large our systems have been available and operational for claims processors. But I have heard that private attorneys and VSOs for whatever reason have lost VBMS access, and has either had to have it restored, or it essentially came back up. And Mark, let me turn it over to you to add some light there. I know you’ve addressed some of these issues.

Mark: Yeah, IT identified 836 accounts nationally, probably a relatively small number. But of those 836 accounts, I’m only aware of two that happened in Providence where non-VA users lost access to either VBMS or case flow or both. And as far as I know, those two accounts were restored. Wasn’t anything that we had to do locally to restore them. IT did eventually fix all of them from their side. But, as EJ says, too, there’s a lot more users on the network right now. So, there are outages. Not just outages to certain applications, but even just getting into the network. And I’ve also anecdotally heard about CAG users being affected.

Because yes, so I mean, not all VA users are necessarily using the virtual private network. Some are using CAG. So, there are more users going into Citrix than there were before, too. So, I’m aware. And I monitor a national chat daily in which the contractors are actually in the chat. And we’ll act on tickets that aren’t getting any traction. So, there’s all of that kind of activity going on too. So, I’m aware that certainly non-VA users are having some issues right now.

EJ McQuade: And that’s a good way to put it, is kind of non-VA users. And again, that’s often our private attorneys and others. But I would tell you, too, that if you experience a system outage, certainly your points of contact in your regional office of jurisdiction that helped you establish your access, I would say certainly reach out through that channel. I would also say that I would recognize that it could be just a temporary thing. And again, there has been a lot of IT activity to make sure our systems stay available. And when there had been outages, largely they’ve been during the prime working hours on Eastern Standard Time. That’s when the most amounts of our users are really on.

And then, of course, as the rest of the country comes on, you see these periods of slow down, specifically in VBMS. But if you’ve somehow experienced some sort of you’re unable to access VBMS, your access as a whole has not been working, I would just encourage you to reach out to your contact at your local, regional office to get that restored. Have we run into any of those, Mark, just to be clear?

Mark: I haven’t seen any like that. But again, I’m seeing some in that chat that I monitor. My counterparts are posting tickets from non-VA users in that chat. And like I said, the contractors are in that chat. And sometimes they can get those tickets escalated that haven’t been paid attention to. And the reason for that, of course, is that the National Service desk is pretty swamped. So, having access to the contractors is a pretty good thing, especially if there’s a work stoppage involved. And they’re usually pretty responsive within that chat.

Robert: Christine, maybe one more question.

Christine: Can everybody hear me?

Robert: Yes, we can hear you, Christine.

Christine: Great. So, another question we have for you is will we be adopting a policy to accept late-filed documents by veterans or their representatives during this pandemic? We know the board has issued a statement. Are you aware of whether the regional offices have any policy or whether they are planning on enacting a policy or coming out with a statement on this?

EJ McQuade: Christine, that’s a great question. I’ll speak to you, but I’d like to get back to you and make sure that we’re being correct. My answer is going to be yes. I don’t know what that is off the top of my head, but I can assure you of two things. One, we don’t want to be creating work for ourselves down the road. We don’t want to be denying claims or doing something or processing the claim without all the information just to have to go back and do it. So, anything late-flowing, I’m very confident there’s going to be some sort of formal policy out there to speak to whether that’s appellate work or claim-related. But off the top of my head, I can’t say that there’s been any sort of directive issued yet, but certainly, that is the approach.

This is a very, very unusual period. A lot of our veteran community has just been hamstrung or dealing with challenges that they weren’t dealing with; everything from childcare to transportation concerns. So, making sure that we are remaining veteran-centric is critical to VA as an entire department, but also certainly for VBA. And Mark, is there anything you’ve seen for late-flowing that’s been… I know there’s been a lot of information and guidance issued to make sure that we’re accounting for some of these things, but I wasn’t sure if there’s anything specifically for late-flowing yet.

Mark: I haven’t seen anything official that speaks to late-flowing documents. One of the things that I had a discussion with the VSO the other day about was that it would probably be a good idea, certainly from point forward… VSOs are not already doing this, but to include the envelope with the postmark along with any claims application, any claims-related documents coming in that are going to be uploaded into VBMS. Because I would imagine that the storage date may not match the date it actually arrived at the RO. So, having a postmark as support for using an earlier date, might be that postmark. I’m hoping that VBA will be liberal on that. I think we’ve done that [inaudible].

EJ McQuade: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

Robert: Well, EJ and Mark, thank you both very much. A couple of people came on late, so just to be clear, the person that’s mostly been speaking is EJ McQuade. He’s the Director of the Providence Regional Office and the Acting Director of the Hartford Regional Office. And with him has been Mark Ramos, who is the Change Management Agent and the Public Affairs Officer as well.

I wanted to thank you both for your time. We really appreciate it this afternoon. And I know you both are busy. So, you can feel free to listen in if you’d like to the rest of us or hang up and go about your business. Whatever you please. So, thank you both.

EJ McQuade: Thanks, Robert. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Mark: Thank you for the opportunity. Appreciate it.