Over the last four years, Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) employees have worked hard to serve our Veterans, their families and survivors and to move the organization into the digital age. This long overdue transformation resulted in improvements of historic measures that ultimately provided faster, higher quality benefits and services to our Veterans.
Accomplishments such as those brought about by VBA and its employees, when done at private sector companies, are lauded in the business pages of the Wall Street Journal. With an increasingly negative public narrative over the last five years, this story has gone untold; however, the numbers tell a story of incredible progress.
In just four years, we fully transitioned from a paper-based claims process to an electronic processing environment, moving from handling thousands of tons of paper each year to processing nearly 100 percent of disability compensation claims electronically. We drove down the backlog of disability claims 87 percent from its peak of 611,000 in March 2013 to just over 75,000 at the end of 2015 – without sacrificing quality. We improved claim-level quality from 83 percent to 90 percent, and on the individual issues inside the claim, it’s 96 percent. Thanks to these improvements, the average time it takes to complete a claim is 124 days.
This progress was made amidst an unprecedented increase in demand. In 2015, we decided over six million medical issues for Veterans – that’s 3.5 million more medical decisions filed by Veterans and decided for Veterans than we did in 2009. And it allowed us to put billions more in compensation and pension benefits into the hands of Veterans over the last six years, and nearly two million more Veterans are now receiving compensation than in 2009.
While our major focus over the past few years was on improving compensation claims processing, we also helped Veterans in big ways among our other lines of business. We currently guarantee two and a half million home loans for Veterans and their families and maintain one of the lowest home loan foreclosure rates in the industry at 1.24 percent. We’ve provided $64 billion to send nearly 1.6 million Veterans and their dependents to school under the Post-9/11 GI Bill® since 2009. We are the 11th largest insurance provider in the industry, providing more than $1.3 trillion in insurance coverage. In 2015, we paid $5.5 billion in low-income pension benefits to over 500,000 Veterans and survivors. Over 1,000 VBA vocational rehabilitation counselors across the country helped over 130,000 Veterans prepare for their careers last year.
As a 33-year Army Veteran myself, these milestones are personal to me and they’re personal to the Veterans and advocates who work at VBA, but mostly we know that they’re personal to every single Veteran out there who has been affected by them. The Veteran whose claim was processed in less than 125 days when he really needed it, and now receives monthly compensation for the injuries he sustained while he served, helping him pay his bills. The Veteran who could put a roof over her family’s head using a VA home loan. The Veteran who got a bachelor’s degree using the Post-9/11 GI Bill® to build a better future. These are the real stories of the real Veterans VA serves. And these are the real differences VA can make in their lives every day.
These improvements do not mean we will stop working to provide the best possible service to Veterans. Far from it. While the major backlog push may be over, we’re still working to continue to improve Veterans’ experience with VBA – and we always will be.
Looking ahead, we’re focused on the Secretary Bob McDonald’s MyVA 12 breakthrough priorities and pushing forward on the priorities among them that are directly in VBA’s area.
That means we’re seriously looking at and testing ways to improve the Compensation and Pension exam experience for our Veterans. We’re modernizing our call centers and increasing the amount of claims processing we can do over the phone. We’re coming up with a way to simplify the appeals process, with help from our partners. We’re working to improve dependency claims processing for Veterans who need to add or remove a spouse or child from their VA benefits, and we’re ahead of our goals in many areas. We also implemented a National Work Queue to balance our benefits delivery to Veterans nationwide, no matter where they live.
We’re doing all of these things to meet one two-part bottom line: to improve the Veteran experience and the employee experience. We can’t have one without the other. A positive experience for employees enables us to provide a positive Veteran experience.
Every day, I feel honored and privileged to fulfill VBA’s mission for our nation’s Veterans, and I am continually impressed by VBA employees’ dedication to do whatever it takes to give our Veterans, their families and their survivors the best quality service.
Danny Pummill is VA’s Acting Under Secretary for Benefits.