By Jim Vale, Veterans Benefits Program Director
The Veterans Benefits Administration has made a lot of changes lately to improve the VA claims process. Unfortunately, some of these changes are counterproductive and will make it more difficult for service officers to help veterans.
For example, for decades service officers based at VA regional offices have had a close working relationship with VA staff to help veterans. If raters needed a missing piece of evidence to grant a claim, all they had to do was call the service officer to track it down. Or if the service officer found a simple mistake on a rating decision, all it would take to fix it was a quick trip upstairs to the rating team. Veterans win when VA staff and service officers work together.
This is about to change. At several regional offices a new policy has been put into place that prohibits service officers and raters from talking to each other. If there is a problem with a rating decision sign-off, the service officer can talk only to the rater’s coach. (If the coach can be found. A lot of service-officer time is wasted trying to track down coaches.)
It is in everyone’s best interest to resolve rating issues at the lowest possible level. What used to be a five-minute informal meeting with the rater now may become a five-year appeal. If service officers are denied access to raters and cannot locate the rater’s coach before the service officer’s review time limit expires, the only way to resolve the issue is to appeal. Given the size of the VA appeals backlog, this could take five years.
This problem will become worse when the VA rolls out its National Work Queue (NWQ), which will allow claims to be decided by any of the fifty-six regional offices (RO), depending on the availability of rating resources at the veteran’s RO of jurisdiction. If the local RO has reached full rating capacity, then the claim may be decided by another RO.
When the service officer has to sign off on the rating decision and discovers a problem, who does the service officer call if the rating was decided at a different RO? Unless there is functionality built into the NWQ to address this issue, the service officer won’t be able to contact the rater or the coach. Given how busy VA raters and coaches are, what are the odds of a service officer getting a call back from a rater’s coach before the sixteen-hour service officer review deadline expires? Again, veterans will be forced into the appeals process for something that used to take minutes to resolve.
Here is a three-part solution to this problem: First, the VA should immediately mandate office hours at every RO to allow service officers a set time each day to meet with raters and coaches to discuss rating decision sign-off issues. This also benefits the raters, as they can be more productive the rest of the day by not being interrupted by service officers. Service officers benefit by not having to spend time trying to find coaches. Veterans win by not having to enter the appeals process.
Next, the Veterans Benefits Management System needs to allow a service officer to “stop the clock” when there is a problem with a rating decision. This should allow time for the matter to be resolved informally. Currently, the VA allows a service officer only sixteen business hours to sign off on a rating decision once the decision is issued.
Finally, before the VA rolls out its NWQ, there must be sufficient functionality to allow service officers to dispute rating decisions and have informal conferences with the rater, coach, and perhaps even the Quality Review Team representative. This can be accomplished through a conference call or online chat message.
Service officers are not the enemy. We are key partners and stakeholders in helping veterans receive the benefits they have earned. Veterans service organizations and the VA regional offices need to continue working together to serve veterans.