Working at one of the Big Six Veteran Service Organizations taught me a few things about VA. First, the regional offices that process compensation claims are not equal, some are more consistent. But the most important thing I learned during my three years representing Veterans who filed appeals to the Board of Veterans Appeals is this: NO CLAIM IS THE SAME. I learned while some claims may appear similar, little variances in each make all the difference.
The Veterans Benefits Administration’s Transformation Plan is change of giant proportions. We’ve tested and measured more than 40 initiatives that are in some phase of implementation. Each initiative falls into one of three categories: people, process, or technology. It’s not enough to change only our processes, update technology, or only change the way we train our employees. VBA Transformation must take place across all three fronts.
Segmented Lanes is one of our new processes that we have implemented at 16 regional offices. The rest of our regional offices get Segmented Lanes throughout 2013. When you file a claim or send evidence to support your claim, our Intake Processing Centers sort it into one of three Segmented Lanes: Express, Core, or Special Operations. This allows VBA to identify at the earliest possible point any Veteran who requires expedited handling, such as a Veteran experiencing financial hardship, a homeless Veteran, a Veteran over the age of 75 or a Veteran who has a terminal illness.
For the rest of us, Segmented Lanes helps get our claims processed faster, in the hands of the right processor, increases accuracy and standardizes the process across all regional offices. This means that the process at the New Orleans Regional Office is the exact same process at the Salt Lake City Regional Office.
The lanes break down like this:
- Express Lane: claims that have one or two contentions, or fully developed claims (an example would be if a Veteran files for an increase in compensation for a back issue and is also seeking to have her left hip condition service connected)
- Core Lane: claims that have three or more contentions, or any claim that does not meet the criteria for Express or Special Operations.
- Special Operations: All claims that require special handling because of their nature (examples are Post Traumatic Stress Disorder associated with Military Sexual Trauma, former Prisoners of War, Traumatic Brain Injury).
Each lane has dedicated claims processors whose skills and expertise match the lane to which they are assigned. This is how VA will process claims more quickly and more accurately. While no claim is the same, certain aspects of processing are alike, so if you work similar claims the process naturally speeds up and quality increases. When I worked at the Board, I often worked several claims in a row for disorders that resulted from a Military Sexual Trauma because some of the same regulations applied to those claims (like rating criteria), even though the claims themselves varied dramatically. Not having to refer to different parts of the regulations saved time, but I also became really good at claims resulting from MST. If I worked at a regional office today, I would probably be in the Special Operations lane.
Another way the lanes are ensuring speed and quality is through our Fully Developed Claims program. FDCs are claims where the Veteran certifies at the time they submit the claim that he or she has provided all evidence. That certification allows VA to move forward without waiting the mandatory waiting period for the Veteran to submit evidence. Veterans can file an informal claim stating they intend to file a claim for benefits using FDC to preserve an effective date and allow them time to collect evidence. We have assigned these claims to the Express lane, allowing FDC claims to be determined in an average of 100 days.
Veteran Service Organizations are available to help Veterans, their families and survivors file claims using both the traditional process and the Fully Developed Claims process. They provide this service regardless of whether you are a member. Let them help you.
Segmented Lanes is just one part of our Transformation and as such and it alone will not eliminate the backlog. But collectively, the initiatives will give VA the ability to process all claims within 125 days at 98 percent quality in 2015.
Cat Trombley is a communications specialist with the Veterans Benefits Administration. Prior to working for VA, she was an assistant director with one of the Veteran Service Organizations and represented Veterans before the Board of Veteran Appeals. She is also an Air Force Veteran.