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VBA-VSO Interactions and Veterans’ Disability Claims Processing

Julia L. Carboni
School of Public and Environmental Affairs
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
801 W. Michigan St., BS 3025
Indianapolis, IN 46202
Email: jcarboni@iupui.edu
Phone: 317-274-8705

  

John D. Graham
School of Public and Environmental Affairs
Indiana University Bloomington
107 S. Indiana Ave., SPEA Room 300
Bloomington, IN 47405
Email: grahamjd@indiana.edu
Phone: 812-855-1432

Min Qi
School of Public and Environmental Affairs
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
801 W. Michigan St., BS 3025
Indianapolis, IN 46202
Email: cyqi@iupui.edu
Phone: 317-274-6801

Project Description

The purpose of this project is to understand how Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) collaborate with the Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA) to help veterans obtain disability benefits. VSOs and the VBA have a formal relationship established by Congressional charter where VSO representatives are legally authorized to prepare, present or prosecute VA claims on behalf of veterans.

This study explores collaborative relationships at two levels – among organizations and among individual frontline staff. Interviews with organizational leaders will provide a wider lens on organizational collaboration while surveys of front line staff will provide details on individual collaboration among staff across organizations.

Project Background

The VBA has a large disability claims backlog. Though the VBA has reduced the backlog in the last year, a considerable number of claimants wait more than 125 days for decisions on their cases. A recent GAO report highlights challenges to reducing the backlog and recent initiatives by the VBA to address those challenges (GAO 13-89). As it has in the past, the VBA claims increased volume and complexity of veteran disability claims along with inadequate staffing, which is driving the backlog problem. To address the problem, the VBA has developed a number of initiatives including an integrated IT system called Veterans Benefits Disability Management (VBMS), a simplified notification letter (SNL), and accelerated claims processing program to improve processing times.

While each of these initiatives has merit, it is unclear how or whether they reduce the backlog. The VBMS program has experienced significant implementation delays and the VBA has not provided evidence that pilot programs reduce backlog times. Veterans Service Organizations claim the SNL does not provide all legally mandated information and makes grounds for appeal of the decision less transparent. There are also questions about whether the VBA’s accelerated program actually brings timely relief to veterans. Additionally, the GAO notes that recent VBA efforts to reduce the backlog lack “key aspects of sound planning” and are not part of a comprehensive strategic plan to reduce the backlog. 

In this project, we examine the collaborative relationships between VSOs and the VBA. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes 91 VSOs to prepare, present or prosecute VA claims on behalf of veterans (US Code 38, Section 5902).  By law, only accredited individuals can assist veterans and their families with a VA claims process. There are three categories of accredited individuals – VSO representatives, attorneys and claim agents (financial planners or veteran advocates without VSO affiliation). A VSO rep represented about 76 percent of VA claimants with open cases (November 2012); there are about 8,000 accredited VSO reps. Attorneys and agents represented about 2 percent of claimants. Remaining claimants have no representation.

Data are gathered through elite interviews with key VSO and VBA leaders and a survey of VSO representatives and VBA claims processors (front line staff). Elite interviews will provide contextual information about the relationship between VSOs and VBA.  Surveys will provide granular information about collaborative motivations, structures, processes and outcomes of collaboration to assist veterans in obtaining disability benefits among front line staff. Additionally, surveys will help us ascertain key factors perceived to be contributing to the backlog. The survey design will allow us to determine differences and similarities in backlog issues among the 57 VA regions, as problems in one office may be different than problems in another office.

VBA claims processors necessarily have a great deal of latitude when interpreting eligibility standards. Situated at the frontline of the organization, claims processors face a complex decision environment that includes a wide array of client interactions and contingencies, including a recent onslaught of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder cases in veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Previous management research in complex task environments has found that frontline workers and their immediate supervisors develop norms and measures of success that are determined more by the on-the-ground realities of the task environment than by the goals derived at the executive level. Considerable variance in processing times and error rates among VAROs indicates that front line discretion may be an important part of the backlog problem. Preliminary discussions with VSO representatives and VA claims processors indicate these groups have collaborative relationships in processing veteran claims. VSO representatives advocate on behalf of clients with VA claims processors and VA claims processors rely on VSO representatives for information on veterans.

Additionally, third-party (VSO) observations of a variety of client interactions should yield significant insight into what factors drive delay in the provision of disability benefits. This requires a focused analysis of management practices, capacity and the formal procedures and informal norms that develop within these environments. Even with substantial ex ante controls, this type of work environment allows for substantial discretion and influence at the front-line levels of the organization, where the primary work of service delivery and regulation is performed. Blunt, top-down policy modifications or new administrative rules layered on top of existing standard operating procedures risk the displacement of goals central to the VA’s mission.

Project Objectives

The primary objective of this study is to understand collaborative relationships among VSO and the VBA in the disability claims process. Aspects of collaborative relationships will be linked to outcomes (e.g. the claims backlog) to identify antecedents of performance.

This project has theoretical and practical significance. The project will link collaborative motivations, structure and processes to collaborative outputs and outcomes. While each of these factors appears in extant scholarship, they are rarely addressed in the same study. This project emphasizes collaborative motivations, structure and processes of nonprofit and public organizations working together to assist veterans seeking disability compensation. Furthermore, the project links collaborative factors to collaborative governance outputs and outcomes. In practical terms, this project will provide granular understanding of how VSOs and VBA collaborate to assist veterans filing disability claims. This is of utmost importance in light of the claims backlog.

Use and Distribution of Results

The team will use this website to facilitate dissemination of findings to a broader audience. This website will feature a project description, complete with objectives and information about members of the research team. In addition, publications, reports and presentations will be uploaded onto the project website. All interview and survey participants will be provided with the link to the website and it will also be available for public viewing.