Getting to backlog zero: Ensuring accountability across VA

If all these secretaries were committed to ending the backlog, why are so many veterans still stuck in it? Our leaders from the top to each claims rater have not been held accountable.
 
A chief role of leaders in the veterans community is holding our government responsible for serving the needs of veterans and their families. This accountability must start at the top, with the Commander-in-Chief and the Secretary of the VA. They are ultimately responsible for delivering results to the many veterans stuck in the VA disability benefits backlog. But accountability also must extend to each regional office and every claims rater if we are to bring about the lasting change our vets need.
 
Secretary Shinseki gave advocates and Congress a powerful tool to judge progress in ending the VA backlog by setting the ambitious goal of processing all claims in less than 125 days with a 98 percent accuracy rate by the end of 2015. To his credit, that promise and the renewed focus from Secretary Shinseki himself, started a wave of much needed reforms at the VA that have made a difference in the backlog.
 

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But while VA has set the 2015 goal, they have yet to establish clear benchmarks to determine whether or not they will meet their goal. Given these measurable benchmarks, the entire veterans’ community, VA headquarters, and each regional offices can be on the same page about what is expected and what all stakeholders will be held accountable for.

Right now, the existing metrics show that the VA is not moving fast enough. At the VFW's 2012 national convention, Secretary Shinseki reported that he intended to return to the 2013 summer conference to report, "just 40 percent of claims will be older than 125 days." Days after the 2013 conference, almost 65 percent of pending disability claims were backlogged. In early September, 62 percent of claims are backlogged. If these aren't the benchmarks the VA is using to measure its success, veterans need to know what they should look for.

While leaders at the top must set the tone, accountability must reaches all levels that have an impact on the VA disability claims process. A strong national strategy will only work if Regional Directors are committed to implementing it effectively at their regional offices. Right now there are few to no measures in place that ensure VA Directors are implementing national initiatives.
 
But it doesn’t stop at management. We also need every claims rater to be held accountable for their productivity. Claims raters must be evaluated by both by the number of claims they process and by the accuracy of their ratings. While speed is important, appeals resulting from bad ratings can leave a veteran waiting for more than two years for the benefits that they have earned. We need a new system to evaluate claims processors that is focused on the end result for a veteran, measuring both accuracy and speed.
 
At the same time, if they are going to be held accountable, claims raters need to have the tools to succeed. They need strong training programs where the cream of the crop mentors inexperienced claims raters. The newly formed Quality Review Teams should be staffed with experienced claims raters who can partner with managers and claims raters to help struggling employees succeed and teach best practices to employees in VA centers across the country.
 
Accountability is not about calling for resignations or firing employees. It is about creating an organization focused on results and transparency for its constituents, building a community that incentivizes good work and disincentivizes bad work, and encouraging and giving every employee the resources to achieve a shared mission.
 
The bottom line is whether the VA delivers results to veterans who need its services. For too long, we’ve accepted a broken system. Now we need every level of the VA to adopt a sense of accountability and responsibility that will ensure support for our nation’s heroes.

O'Gorman is political director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.