If there is one word in the English language that could be a four-letter word, it’s “claims.” From a Veteran’s standpoint, that six-letter word can be as cringe-worthy as any four-letter word heard while wearing the uniform. At VA, we understand the claims process is a major source of contention with our Veterans.
The problem has been around a long time. If memory serves, America’s last World War I Veteran, Frank Buckles, who passed in February of this year, went a few rounds with VA over benefits in his time. And if I had to guess, issues with claims probably started shortly after Generals Grant and Lee left the service. So, the problems aren’t new.
What is fairly new is an approach in which VA is working to find creative ways to cut through the red tape; fix what is broken and find better ways of doing things. It’s called the Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative—or VAi2 for those who prefer acronyms.
VAi2 is a program designed to tap the talent and expertise of individuals both inside and outside government to contribute new ideas that ultimately produce new, innovative solutions that advance VA’s ability to both improve and deliver benefits and services.
VAi2’s roots can be traced back to a speech President Obama gave to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 2009 when he said:
“We’re going to challenge each of our 57 regional VA offices to come up with the best ways of doing business, of harnessing the best information technologies, of cutting red tape and breaking through the bureaucracy. And then we’re going to fund the best ideas and put them into action, all with a simple mission: cut those backlogs, slash those wait times, deliver your benefits sooner.”
Shortly after that speech, Secretary Shinseki implemented VAi2, which includes an employee competition as part of the initiative. The idea is to ask frontline employees to propose ideas and solutions to solve the problems they face every day. Who knows better than those who actually do the work?
To date, there have been four Employee Innovation Competitions – two with the Veterans Health Administration and two with the Veterans Benefits Administration, resulting in a total of 40 employee ideas being selected and funded for implementation.
The most recent competition held with VBA employees resulted in six ideas being selected. This particular competition sought ideas from employees to help Veterans with disabilities related to their military service obtain meaningful employment. VA will develop, test, and potentially implement these ideas for nationwide use in VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program.
As VA’s Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said recently:
“Every Veterans Benefits Administration employee who participated in VA’s 2011 Employee Innovation Competition helped to improve service to our Veterans. Through the ingenuity of our employees and their deep understanding of what today’s Veterans need to gain good-paying jobs, we have a terrific set of innovations to pursue.”
The selected innovations have the potential to significantly improve the quality of services provided to participants in VA’s VR&E Program and to reduce the cost to taxpayers of delivering those services.
Winning ideas include: a paid internship program to help Veterans gain private-sector work experience; support systems for Post-9/11 Veteran-students with a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder; development of a mentorship program for Veterans from the employment community; providing Mental Health First Aid training to VR&E employees to increase their understanding of mental illness and enable them to provide the highest level of service to ensure successful Veteran outcomes; online verification of eligibility for VR&E services; and enhancements to the disbursement of education benefits in the form of a pre-loaded debit card for purchasing books and supplies. View a complete list and description of the winners.
Thousands of employees cast their votes online with the top vote-getters having an opportunity to pitch their ideas to senior VA leaders with an official presentation. A multiple-judge panel then thoroughly reviewed all of the finalists and selected six ideas for funding.
VAi2 Director Jonah Czerwinski also added recently:
“These are the best of the best. With this selection, we now have 16 innovations funded from the Veterans Benefits Administration employee competitions, many of which have been implemented and are positively affecting our service-delivery.”
VAi2 officially launched in spring of 2010 to identify, fund, and test new ideas and new tools that improve access, enhance quality, reduce costs, and improve Veteran satisfaction with VA services.
The Initiative invites employees, private sector companies, entrepreneurs, and academic leaders to contribute their best ideas for innovations that increase Veterans’ access to VA services, improve the quality of services delivered, enhance the performance of VA operations, and reduce or control the cost of delivering those services that Veterans and their families receive. VAi2 will identify, prioritize, fund, test, and deploy the most promising solutions to the VA’s most important challenges.
To learn more about VAi2 and what innovative approaches VA is taking to better serve our Veterans, visit the site.