How VA is Structured (and Why It Matters to You)


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As a sophomore in college, the first of every month became a VA ritual for me. I would certify my enrollment for the Montgomery GI Bill, then I would call to check the status of my disability claim. “Still being decided on,” I would hear for months after my medical evaluation. I stuffed the business card full of numbers back into my wallet, where it would remain for another month. It was covered with numbers to various VA offices, their physical locations unknown. They all went to ‘the VA,’ wherever that was. A year after submitting my claim, I heard the good news on the other line-my claim was accepted, and I would receive back pay for the past year. A check was on its way to Carver Avenue.

“Carver Avenue? I haven’t lived there for months! I already changed my mailing address with GI Bill people!” I told the lady on the other end. I had moved recently, and made sure to contact the GI Bill help line to update my mailing information. “Sorry,” she said. “We don’t work on the same system. We’ll have to cancel that one and send another.” I was confused. Why wasn’t everything connected to the massive dark tower in the middle of Washington DC?

It took a confusing phone call and a misdirected check for me to realize that the Department of Veterans Affairs operates with distinct parts, each with a specific role. It has best been described to me that the three administrations–Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration and National Cemetery Administration–operate like the separate branches of the military. Each branch fulfills the mission to achieve domestic and international security goals while having separate command structures, SOPs, lingo and culture. The three VA administrations work to provide services and support for Veterans, but their structure, budgets, goals and projects don’t always align. Much has been done recently to break down the walls and collaborate between the administrations, but there is still work to do.

I could have saved a lot of time and effort if I knew back then that VHA, VBA and NCA are as different as Army, Navy and Air Force. It would’ve helped to understand when and where to update my information so I could be contacted (or sent a check) if necessary. It’s worth considering that many more Veterans don’t know that either, which can lead to confusion and frustration when searching for information or points of contact. We aim to break down the components and straighten out the differences between the administrations to reduce the size of what VA seems to be. And we’ll be shedding light on VA programs and initiatives you might be surprised to hear even exist. The goal is simple: give every Veteran the confidence to approach VA without the hesitation of facing a baffling fortress of government.

Author

Alex Horton

Comments

  1. TIM HERENDEEN    

    Who is the author of this article ??? Your article has been plagiarized ! I would like to stop this clown as soon as I can !

  2. Andy Sekely    

    This is lousy news !… In a world where we have a “Universal” sign on pin for several Governmental sights… i.e. The VA… is one of them… Why isn’t the VA in the business of making sure ALL personal records of mine are current with ONE UPDATE?… Your NEWS here is symtomatic of how the VA dosen’t really SERVE the VET the best as it can… there can’t possably be a reason for ALL THREE of the VA branches to not share the “personal information” such as a change of address !

    1. Lauren Bailey    

      Andy,

      Imagine my horror and frustration when I found this out…just 10 short months ago! And I don’t even have as a big a stake in the data being interoperable as you do. Please trust me when I tell you we are doing everything possible to, over time, make this right!

  3. Logic    

    Alex, thanks for sharing some of your VA experiences with us. I can certainly relate to what you have described and I am sure many other Vets can as well. I concur with your point on being able to save considerable time, effort and frustration by being informed of the basic structure of the VA and it’s major moving parts at the start of our endeavors.

    From the Vet who has recently discharged to those who have decided to pursue VA assistance long after their service time, a high-level overview of the VA and it’s major divisions (VHA – VBA – NCA) posted on the website would be much appreciated. e.g A simple Org. Chart to help us visualize and/or something as simple as the division title and a few bullets underneath highlighting the main items each branch can assist you with.

    I do have to say though, the VA certainly has come along way when it comes to presenting information. They have made even more information, more accessible to the Veteran and display it in a user-friendly manner on the web site(s). I remember a time not so long ago when the site was not quite as user-friendly. Kudos to all involved in those improvements.

    Personally, I reached out to the VA to exercise my education benefits shortly after I separated. It was a fairly straight forward experience. On the other hand, I have been battling a bevy of medical issues through the years. I was under the care of various private doctors; endured tests, surgeries and more tests. The issues became overwhelming and this drove me to the VHA. It’s not that I did not want to explore VHA all the while, I was just tremendously intimidated by all of it. Trying to understand the inner-workings, asking the right questions and most importantly, finding out where to start was the major issue for me. I have since made the wise decision to reach out for help and have been following doctors orders ever since. Glad I am still here to participate…

    With regards to Mr. Sekely’s comments above: I feel your pain. Really, I do. The reality of the situation however is that the VA is faced with an enormous task, taking care of all of us – there are a lot of us and there is only so much VA to go around so you;ll have to try to be patient. In a previous life, I worked with various government entities supporting and engineering IT solutions, one of which had to do with exactly what you describe; single sign-on access and the consolidation and de-duplication of information and the systems that serve said information. The technical task at hand is much more difficult than most folks realize.

    My point here is that I am positive the VA is working to make your request a reality. This is evidenced with the advent of My Health eVet, the eBenefits website and even this web-log we are reading and commenting on today.

    Thanks for your service!

  4. Jacob W    

    This is true. When inquiring why I had not received my BAH payments I was informed that the education side did not have a copy of my 214. I was thinking that the “VA” had a copy, why don’t you? Like the post here says, they are separate. On top of that, they wont notify you there is a discrepancy.

  5. Cav Scout    

    The VA is a complex system for sure, but we are making beau coup progress under the new leadership exemplified by retired 4 star Army general Secretary Eric Shinseki. He is a combat veteran and was one of my CO’s in Nam, then Captian Shinseki. He did not sit in the rear like the rest of the brass, but went to the bush with us and got 2 purple hearts for doing so. As a DAV and VFW service officer I see the claims process being streamlined, covering more veterans, more presumptive conditions and far more generous. We need to keep him!

  6. Ron Nesler    

    I believe the new Secretary is sincere in wanting to stop the waste, fraud and abuse in the VA, but that he is blocked by career bureaucrats with too much at steak in the old system to be willing to allow real reform.

  7. brenda hayes    

    Change we can believe in!!

    I think any of us who have been dealing with any component of the VA over the years –resides in MISSIOURI!!!

    I only believe that any change can come about Because of General–the Secrtary. But, sadly, I have to acknowledge Ron Nesler’s comment as more true than not.

    How can those put in “temporary” appointments make the much needed change our Government needs? Can’t do it 4 years; much less trying to understand the GAME in two years.

    Seems like a lot of us are good at the rah rah –The Flag, etc. but, we all have to take a good look at what others see; our Country is NOT without our corruptions and dishonors which make us often seem like hypocrites.

    The American people and Veterans/Family members don’t mind doing their fair share; but when we see the obvious corruptions and misdealings of those in control; you can’t blame people for being so disgusted with it all.

    How many times does it take to see the name Halliburton come up and not –figure out something might be amiss? You don’t have to be a genius! Most of us can do basic math!!

    Anyone ever find out where all the Moneys went that couldn’t be found that was sent to Iraq or was that Afghanistan or probably both?

    Sorry; that is money that comes from hardworking taxpayers and could have gone to make sure we have adequate care for our Veterans and family members who survived as well as do honor with benefits for those who are the casaultys of these “wars”. Who’s asleep at the wheel?

    Where are the suggestions for improvements posted? Will that be a separate blog?

    Will the other “administrations of the VA” be included in these upcoming blogs? Or does this Team speak for all three components of the VA?

    Are those of us who take the time to bring up ineffective programs, systems, etc. are we just wasting our breath?

    It’s like Lowes…I’m sure they have many different departments at the Executive levels; but, we consumers, just need to know someone is allocated to take care of us the consumers; not be schlept around…”…not my job…not my department…sorry, wrong administration.”

    One of my suggestion is an OMBUDSMAN program. If those Veterans and Family members are not being heard; we need to know there is someone to hear us; someone designated as the Buck Stopper!

    I have several questions I would like answered and not sure whom to ask?

    For instance, Homeless Vets: You can’t say there is a system in place; it is not. The 800 hotline is a joke. Sorry, Mr. Secretary, but I call um like I see um….I called for a homeless Vet; NY State VAMC answered; “..call your VAMC homeless program; then your Patient Advocate; then if that does not work; call your Congressman”.

    How upsetting; and then you don’t understand our cynicism? For the Homeless Vets; there are no quality wrap around programs. It becomes a revolving door system, much like our “correction” programs.

    The VAMC’s Recidivism rate with detox alone is indeed high because there is NO comprehensive programs or so little available for the most part if they do exist; and apparently no one is networking with other VAMC’s to see if they have any inhouse A/D programs or community programs, for that matter!

    As well, I don’t believe you can say, in good consconsience, that a VAMC in-house Program that consists of only 5 patients is a quality A/D program. Wouldn’t be for my family members and it should not be for other Vet families either.

    A few more questions for you, Alex and Lauren, are:

    What IS being done to make changes in how all three of these VA administrations interact better with each other, for the good of the Veteran/Family member?

    Where are you getting the feedback? I truly believe “the VA” needs more than just internal feedback as this will only continue to get you what you’ve gotten for quite some time.

    I was hoping that Obama’s thought to put someone in charge of looking at the all Government Agencys/Departments, etc. and look at the processes that work and don’t work; but it seems that was squashed. Like the old OD/OE of the Army; sounded great; but no Commander wanted or welcomed them in their business…again, the old turfdom rule.

    Like I said; might have been born somewhere else…but, “I’m from Missouri!”

    The people that have to deal with the VA–to us–it is the VA; even though it has different components. We look to the Secretary’s office to bring all three administrations together on the same page. You mean this has not been happening? It is worse than we thought?

    Maybe more clarity around this issue needs to be given.

    How can we trust that things will be done for the good of the Veterans if it is broken up in so many components and these “3 different Administrations” don’t think they should network with each other.

    Again, another issue of civilian turfdom, at the Executive level I would guess, if I may. If this is the case; and it is not addressed and “fixed”; then the Vets/family members just will get more of the same–less effectiveness as those fixes will not have stayability!!

    It seems we are drowing in “politics”.

    BH,
    Vetwife Advocate

  8. PAUL V SHEPHERD    

    Why are you all wasting money that veterans NEED, by playing with another STUPID, VA WEB-PROGRAM….the programs that you have out there DO NOT, WORK AND YOU CAN’T FIX WHAT YOU HAVE, So lets WASTE MORE MONEY ON ANOTHER USELESS WEB PROGRAM…..MY HEALTHY VET HAS NEVER WORKED AT ALL…..for over two years I have had nothing but problems. PASSWORD ISSUES….RESETS that DO NOT ALLOW A PERSON TO RESET A PW…..PASSWORDS NOT BEING ACCEPTED, AND IF THEY DO GET ACCEPTED THEY DO NOT WORK 10 MINUTES LATER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    USA JOBS ANOTHER FIASCO……HOMELESS VETERANS PROGRAMS…………..THAT ONLY HELP .05% of any population, Administrators who get rich, $ 75,000.00 $ 100,000.00, while VETERANS SLEEP IN THE STREETS, DOCTORS WHO REPEATEDLY VIOLATE, HIPPA RULES and other DR’s Cover it up, Patients forced to TAKE COLD SHOWERS, while ADMINISTRATORS hold lavish luncheons, or have Offices redecorated, Patients, whom are WAREHOUSED….YES THATS RIGHT……. PHILADELPHIA AND BROOKLYN ALL OVER AGAIN…….REMEMBER 1968-69-70…….A health care system that works 0700 to 1500….and everyone figures out how to avoid being accountable, CONTACT a Patient ADVOCATE….why….they work for the FOX……HOMELESS PROGRAM SUPERVISORS…whom can’t get off there backside to meet with PATIENTS….so they send a overworked “CASE WORKER” who spends five minutes with you then tells you “we can’t help you until your OUT OF THE HOSPITAL, and on the STREET SLEEPING IN A DITCH….. THE MILITARY TEACHES THAT IT TAKES COURAGE TO TAKE THE STEP, and ask for HELP…..THE VA-PITTSBURGH, Aspinwall TELLS YOU “HERE IS A PAPER WITH HOMELESS SHELTERS”….”WE DON’T DEAL WITH WALK-INS”………..OH YA if we do accept you, in the future, YOU MUST GIVE UP–CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS, UNDER 1st, 4th amendments, OH YA…..will only help you if you have DRUG & ALCOHOL issues….FUNNY THAT MOST OF THE PEOPLE WORKING AT THESE PROGRAM HAVE NEVER BEEN HOMELESS, HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE HOMELESS, and IF I HAD the Jobs they the NON_VETERANS…HOLD…I WOULD NOT BE HOMELESS….IF I HAD BEEN DEALT WITH THROUGH THE AO/PTSD-PROGRAMS IN THE 1980/90s MY HEALTH WOULD NOT BE AS BAD AS IT IS…….and I could still could be able to due the work I used to do, but this is the time old ANALOGY…!@#$%^ THE VETERANS, who cares that a veteran spent 13 months in combat, and KILLED HIS FIRST MAN before HE COULD, VOTE, or BEFORE HE was able to LEGALLY DRINK, in WWII and after THE VA-was the TOP, today you ar ONLY AN INCH OFF THE BOTTOM, THERE IS MORE FRAUD, WASTE, ABUSE in the VA SYSTEM TODAY, than at any other time…….want to call me a LIAR….PUT ME BEFORE CONGRESS……I HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR, BUT FEAR ITS SELF………..PS I do not believe that you have the COURAGE to print this Comment!

  9. Bean_Delphiki    

    Alex,

    [civilian…so I don’t know how much this comment matters]

    It’s good to hear that the VA has initiatives to break down the various structures and cultures and processes and all that. But I think it would be benefitial if you would take some time to digest the current structure for those who use it. How are the VHA, VBA and NCA as different as Army, Navy and Air Force? (graphics are always welcome)

    This will prepare the readers to understand the progress being made, as well as help them navigate the existing machine.

    Kindest Regards,
    Bean

  10. Casey W.    

    Dear V.A,

    Thank you for not giving me an education and instead ruining my life. I gave up a 15+ dollar an hour tech job to go back to school and you people have all but ruined it.
    Due to your accounting errors, my life is falling apart. When I ask for help you do nothing to fix it. You should all be fired and until the whole system overhauled.

    -I have no idea what I am getting for education benefits, no idea who to speak with, the people I try to contact are inept and argumentative.
    -Every term some error in accounting is made and its taken out on me financially, not you. So I am constantly docked money I already can’t afford to lose and bare the brunt of your failures.
    -I am always behind in my bills and can’t afford to live on my own while going to school. I have no one to lean on for resources, every time you fail it hurts me and no one else. If your paycheck got docked for no reason, you would revolt…what should I do?
    -I am a veteran with PTSD and cannot deal with the extra anxiety you are putting on me, the system should not be this hard to use or navigate. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
    -You should not be allowed to take money out of my check without first consulting with me, because you have no idea the damage you are doing to my life when you do this.
    -I haven’t received word from you in months about anything having to do with my education other than photo copied forms that have no pertinent data in them.

    I am going to keep finding public forums to decry you until you start really helping veterans.

    Casey W.

    Soon to be homeless, failed out student.

    1. Alex Horton    

      Casey, let’s try to sort this out. What do you mean by accounting errors? You were not properly certified, or did you get the $3000 emergency payment check and VA is asking for reimbursement? Have you checked with your certifying official at the school to make sure your classes and benefits award letter were filed correctly?

      I know this is just another VA call number, but I used this to answer questions about my GI Bill benefits (how many months I had left and all that). They answered pretty quick and were fairly helpful, and I didn’t identify myself as a VA employee. Give them a shot: 1-888-GIBILL-1 (1-888-442-4551). If you can’t get through or they haven’t been able to help, let me know and I’ll see what else I can do for you. I know what it’s like to depend on the housing allowance to live; I was very close to dropping out of school because my Post-9/11 stipend didn’t come through last year like everyone else, and I was facing eviction. So I will try to help you the best I can.

      1. Vince    

        We do need to al look out for each other.

  11. Gevalia Coffee    

    Thanks for this valuable post. I just want to let you know that I just check out your site and and you rock!. I’m looking forward to read lots more of your articles… You got it covered buddy.

  12. Nox Edge    

    Quite interesting post. What i would say is trends are changing these days.

  13. Trvr    

    “Much has been done recently to break down the walls and collaborate between the administrations, but there is still work to do…”

    Still work to do is an understatement. The VBA and VHA can’t seem to co-ordinate on compensation worth a damn. The VBA makes a veteran who might be currently treated for a disability by the VHA go through it’s laborious process of contracted doctors and scrutiny rather than take the word of the VHA system’s doctors. It’s appalling to anyone who has to go through the process.

    This is an issue for Shinseki’s office since neither the VBA or VHA seem to want to fix this time-consuming issue. I say this while waiting–9 months now–for word by the VBA on the service-related condition I’ve been treated for going on four years by the VHA. Just disgusted.

    1. geodude    

      I hear your frustration. The whole point of the VBA medical exam is for the compensation Doctors to evaluate and comment on what the VHA or in many vets cases private/or military doctors have stated. It is the VBA doctor’s evaluation that the ratings administrators use to make the assessment as to the degree your claimed medical issues are or are not service connected and to what degree. The VHA doctors have a different role in your treatment and have a different role than that of the C&P (VBA) doctors. Keep following up on your claim, don’t let your frustration with the system keep you from getting what you deserve.

      1. Vince    

        At the present time that is the only advice worth listening to. Keep pounding away at the VBA and eventually you’ll get through. Work with a service organization like the American Legion or Purple Heart if possible. Good luck.

        I work for VBA and I’m here to tell you it’s not getting any better.

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