Veterans filing disability claims have said they want choices and faster decisions. Due to improvements in the system and processes, Veterans are now getting more options.
VA’s Benefits Administration’s (VBA) goal is to deliver VA benefits and services to Veterans and their families in a responsive, timely and compassionate manner, in recognition of their service to the Nation. To work toward fulfilling the goal of delivering benefits faster and more effectively, VBA has implemented improvements to the benefits processes – with more improvements planned.
To meet this goal, VBA built a customer service framework focused on listening to Veterans’ input and improving its processes based on that input. The customer service model then empowers both Veterans and employees to make changes.
“Since implementing this framework, VBA has made improvements for Veterans that are powerful and measurable,” said Brianne Ogilvie, executive director of VBA’s Office of Administrative Review, which oversees the process of requesting a decision review on Veterans’ claims decisions. “Most importantly, VBA made these changes based on direct feedback from Veterans.”
How has Veteran feedback improved VBA processes?
Appeals Modernization Act of 2017
One example is the transformation of the appeals process. For years, Veterans have been asking for VA “to fix the broken appeals process.” Appeals are the result of a Veteran formally disagreeing with the decision that VA made on her compensation claim. In that process – now known as “the legacy appeals process” – Veterans could wait three to seven years for a single decision – and even longer if they disagreed with that decision!
Today, the legacy appeals process is closed to new appellants. Its replacement required legislative change. To get there, VBA worked closely with internal and external partners, including Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), Veteran advocates, other VA administrations, and Congressional staffers to draft and pass the Veteran Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 (AMA).
AMA created two new decision review processes: the Higher-Level Review and the Supplemental Claim. These are in addition to a traditional appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA). One of the most popular features of the new law is that Veterans can now decide which of the three options to pursue, based on their situation.
Implementing these new decision review processes significantly decreased the number of Veterans waiting for decisions on their disagreements, as well as the time they waited.
When AMA was fully implemented two years ago, VBA set a goal to complete decisions in an average of 125 days. Veterans who chose one of these two new processes no longer wait years for a decision. Instead, VBA is meeting its average timeliness goals in both the Higher-Level Review and Supplemental Claim lanes. (Interested? Here’s how to opt-in from the legacy process. And, here’s how to track our numbers. )
In Fiscal Year 2021, Higher-Level Reviews are being completed in an average of 124 days, and Supplemental Claims are being completed in an average of 94 days. Since VA implemented AMA, VBA reduced its inventory of pending appeals by 87%.
In addition to revamping the appeals process, VBA continues to seek Veterans’ input about the services they receive through the launch of a new survey program. These Veteran-focused electronic surveys are known as VSignals.
Each week, VBA sends approximately 2,800 VSignals surveys focused on the end-to-end customer experience with its two AMA decision review processes. The surveys capture insights about Veterans’ experiences appealing a claim decision when submitting their decision review request – and their experiences at the end of the process, once they receive a decision.
“Veterans can see that their feedback is directly responsible for improvements to the process, and that encourages them to participate in the surveys. The more feedback we get, the better for the Veteran experience,” Ogilvie said.
Each returned survey helps VBA understand the strengths and weaknesses in its processes. Each week, VBA calls several survey respondents to learn even more about their experiences. These calls are opportunities for VBA to address concerns and understand specifically what is and is not working for Veterans. The calls also allow VBA to determine where the Higher-Level Review and Supplemental Claim processes can be further improved.
VBA has already made clear improvements to the customer experience through its deliberate, customer-focused efforts. The organization continues to listen, improve, and empower Veterans and employees to identify future enhancements to meet its ongoing goal of delivering benefits in a responsive, timely and compassionate manner.
Shireen Lackey is senior management and program analyst at VBA’s Office of Administrative Review.