Last week, I had the opportunity to visit a Regional Office. As you might know, I’ve worked on a number of benefits technology projects, but until last week, I’d never actually seen an RO up close, in action. And because I hear and read the complaints—because I’m aware many Veterans view regional offices as black holes where their claims go to languish—I decided we should start trying to shed some light on what these offices are, how they work, and how their staffs do their jobs. A good place to start, I thought, would be the office that functions as the national touch point for the Fast Track (see note below regarding Fast Track) claims processing system—Nashville.
The Regional office is situated in downtown Nashville, housed in an unassuming Federal building that is also home to part of the Social Security Administration and the Federal Courts. I was met by Assistant Director Alan Bozeman (who is also the business owner of the Fast Track system) who took me on a tour of the building.
VA’s claims processing operation takes up two floors that I saw. My immediate observation, like all my colleagues at Central Office promised, was that my colleagues in the field are literally buried in paper.
The picture here is one that VA Chief Technology Officer Peter Levin took when he first visited a Regional Office. I like Dr. Levin a lot—one of his best qualities is his ability to tell a story, which is exactly what I thought he was doing when he showed me this picture the first time. There’s no way everyone’s desk looks like that, is there?
I thought there would be one or two VA employees who weren’t so good at processing claims that would have stacks and stacks and stacks of paper surrounding them while the rest had empty desks and were playing Minesweeper and surfing the web. Oh how wrong I was. Each Veteran who submits a claim has at least, at least, three folders that make up their total claim.
As Alan led me first through the rows of cubes occupied by employees who rate claims (who looked like they were going to, at any moment, be crushed by the huge folders surrounding them on their desks) we chatted in hushed voices so as not to disturb them. You could hear Rating Veteran Service Representatives (RVSRs) talking amongst themselves, asking questions and meeting about different claims related issues. I didn’t hear anyone talking about the Monday night football game or the big college games or even the record snow that Nashville had gotten that weekend. It was all business.
We made our way downstairs to the Veterans Service Representative’s area where I was again astounded by the stacks of paper that surrounded my colleagues. The VSRs are the people that do the development of Veterans’ claims; this is the part of the process that takes the longest.
While I was on that floor I talked for a long time to a VSR named Chris. Chris probably isn’t much older than me (a spry 27 in case you were wondering) and he speaks really quietly and intently. He told me about his job, which is to review the Fast Track claims that are coming through the system. He maneuvered me through the first couple of steps of a claims folder, explaining the different acronyms and parts of the process. After we talked Fast Track, I asked Chris what he thought about VBA’s bad rap with Veterans—especially given past media coverage. He looked sullen. He told me that if there were only a few things he would want Veterans to know: The issues that VSRs and RVSRs are working for Veterans are complex, mostly as a result of federal regulation. He doesn’t like the bureaucracy any more than the Veterans waiting for their claims decisions, but he and his colleagues follow the rules very closely and do their jobs as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
After visiting with Chris I went to the first floor where I sat with the Public Contact Office. There I met Sheila and Dan who sit down with Veterans from the area one on one to help them with any issues they have. Veterans can go the their local Public Contact Office for help with medical questions, assistance with filing paperwork, to check on their claim or to have the Public Contact representative help them get started with an appeal. Sheila and Dan allowed me to sit in as they helped an elderly Veteran–who had driven all the way from Kentucky–itemize a year’s worth of out-of-pocket health care costs (which took Sheila the better part of an hour). Then I watched them explain another Veteran’s right to appeal based on a recent claims decision. Dan and Sheila worked patiently and attentively with these Veterans-–and I was impressed.
Finally, Alan took me to meet an RVSR, the people who determine the rating. Glenda, the team leader, introduced me to a new RVSR who had recently been promoted. Again, I was astounded by the amount of paper that surrounded him in his cube. He began walking me through a claim and what struck me was his unbelievable attention to detail. Despite the enormous stacks of paper in the claim, he carefully went to each tab, poring over the information, looking for what he needed and marking details and facts in the folder that might be helpful to expedite the process later. Had I not had to jump up (rudely and a little frantically) to deal with my travel plans, I would have mostly likely watched the RVSR work that claim for hours. Not because he’s slow or bad at his job, but because the Veteran has 10 folders making up his claim. 10. And each folder had roughly 400 pieces of paper in it. All important. All that needed, at some time, someone’s attention.
I learned a lot in Nashville. I learned about the complex external system that both Veterans and VA employees are working with. I was shocked by the amount of paper that passes through the hands of my colleagues when they’re trying to develop and rate a claim and I listened as they coached their colleagues elsewhere in the country to adopt and get smart on the new technology. I also learned that the employees are frustrated with the same issues Veterans are frustrated with: No contact, the 1-800 number not working, too much paper, a lot of confusing rules—the list I took from them looked almost EXACTLY like the list I’ve gotten from you.
Most importantly, I learned that VBA (at least this office) isn’t filled to the brim with people who hate Veterans and who want them to suffer without the compensation they deserve. They are there to help (especially in that Public Contact Office) and the employees I met, from what I saw, really are doing their best. As I sped to the airport, I started agonizing over this piece: how to tell you that there are RVSRs and VSRs who care deeply about your claims and the issues you submit claims about. I know that just because I say it doesn’t mean you believe it. The people who care are out there-–and many of them are working on your claims right now.
Have you ever visited your Regional Office in person? What was your experience?
Note: Since the date of this post, the Fast Track process has been discontinued. eBenefits is the platform to apply for disability compensation and much progress has been made toward the goal of processing claims electronically. For more information about electronic claims processing, see this post about our 5-millionth electronically processed claim.