Lake County News – VA pledges to improve services to local veterans
By: Elizabeth Larson
May 3, 2012 -
Congressman Mike Thompson hosted local veterans leaders and Department of Veterans Affairs officials at a Monday roundtable in an effort to find out how the agency can be improved to better serve its veteran clients, including the thousands of veterans who reside in Lake County.
The meeting took place on the same day that Thompson’s office announced that he had secured commitments from the VA that it will make improvements at the VA Oakland Regional Office, one of the slowest regional offices in the nation for claims processing.
The Monday afternoon roundtable at the Lake County Courthouse in Lakeport featured representatives from veterans’ organizations around the lake – Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, United Veterans Council and the Military Funeral Honors Team – as well as Lake County Veterans Service Office staff, county Supervisor Jim Comstock, staff from the VA Clinic in Clearlake and the Employment Development Department.
Making the trip to meet with the vets and local leaders were Lawrence Carroll, director of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and VA Oakland Regional Office Director Douglas Bragg.
“I can't tell you how important this is to the community,” said Thompson, who along with the VA officials had held a similar roundtable with veterans in Sonoma County earlier in the day.
Approximately 11 percent of Lake County’s total population – or 7,293 people – are veterans, according to Thompson’s office.
“Generally a veteran doesn't call my office until they're at their wits' end,” said Thompson.
The VA has a large number of claims pending nationwide, “and the numbers reflect even worse in our area,” Thompson said.
However, at a meeting he and Congressman Wally Herger had with VA officials last month, he said the VA came forward with what he believed was a good proposal – including training for staff – to address that claims backlog.
“They’re making some very substantial efforts to clean that backlog up,” he said.
Carroll, who like Bragg is a veteran, told the vets they would try to get them answers to their issues.
He said they work for a big bureaucracy. While that’s not an excuse, it helps to understand their challenges.
Carroll said they were going through some transformational changes, and as a result sometimes it looks like things are getting worse.
He also shared with the group that a family member of his, a three-tour Vietnam veteran, had fought for years to get health services through the VA, which did not believe the man had served in Vietnam.
Bragg, a 36-year federal employee, arrived in Oakland six months ago, and said he is there to fix the problems.
Thompson told the vets Monday that the training that VA staff is scheduled to be given is meant to make the Oakland Regional Office more responsive and help them catch up on claims processing.
“I want everyone to know we're here as allies, not adversaries,” Thompson said.
Bragg said the VA is going to train more people in more skills, which will give them flexibility.
“We are going to get better,” he said.
Addressing a larger problem
Thompson, a Vietnam veteran, said he and Congressman Wally Herger met in Washington, DC last month with VA Under Secretary for Benefits Brigadier General Allison A. Hickey to discuss the VA’s claims processing issues, which the agency said has resulted from workload and performance issues.
Hickey oversees all nonmedical benefits and services provided to veterans and their families, including all operations at the VA Oakland Regional Office.
Oakland has 30,765 pending disability claims, according to the VA. On average, the wait time on these claims is more than 263 days, 50 days longer than the national average. Of those disability claims, more than 9,200 have been pending for more than a year.
On Monday Thompson shared a copy of a letter from Hickey, who outlined the elements of a plan to improve services delivery that began at the Oakland Regional Office on March 27.
“Our goal is to achieve significant improvements in the quality and timeliness of claims processing,” Hickey wrote. “We have also made it a priority to enhance our communications with congressional stakeholders.”
The performance improvement plan will include “Challenge” training for the entire regional office in June to improve employee skill levels and decision quality, as well as technical, team, supervisory and communications training. It’s the first effort to retrain an entire regional office, according to Hickey.
The VA also is shifting 27 employees to the Rating Veterans Service Representative position and four employees to the Decision Review Officer position to increase the number of employees assigned to its congressional liaison staff in order to improve service and responsiveness to congressional inquiries, Hickey reported.
A new Simplified Notification Letter process (SNL) is being recently implemented at the Oakland Regional Office as part of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Transformation plan, and the office also is establishing a Quality Review Team to eliminate errors at the earliest possible stage of the claims process, according to Hickey.
In order to reduce its pending claims inventory, Hickey said the Oakland Regional Office is receiving brokering assistance from other VA regional offices in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Muskogee, Oklahoma, an effort that began in March.
Hickey said Bragg, the new Oakland Regional Office director, also will engage in face-to-face discussions with each of the 21 Northern California congressional district offices over the coming months.