USB Hickey: ” But the very last thing I do want to just tell you is I leave today at this hearing and I go do what I have been doing for the last four months. I get on a call down to all bargaining unit employees who are on VBMS today in all of our Regional Offices and I just tell them to tell me- give me the good, the bad and the ugly.”
This is a wonderful faery tale for bedtime reading. The Senate Veterans Affairs committee has invited the Under Secretary of Excuses Brig. General (ret.) Allison “Chipmunk” Hickey to Capitol Hill to assuage their fears that maybe someone is pulling their leg. After a number of years of planning (2010), the VBMS is now up and running. Here’s the video.
Senator Richard Burr went over to 810 Vermin Ave. NW for a demonstration of the new computer last week. Unfortunately the computer was having a bad hair day and “running at a lower level environment-not at the production level where claims were actually processed.” according to Alan Bozeman, Director, Veterans Benefits Management System Program Office. When queried further by Burr on how reliable the new computer was, he received a convoluted answer than headed into the weeds faster than a North Carolina black snake. Nobody asked what a “lower-level environment” actually is. Apparently everything is super smiley and VSRs across the nation are happily humming along at 78 rpm: ” Field users in production VBMS have sustained very little outage time in VBMS over the course of…since generation one software was available. There will be isolated pockets that affect certain users with certain roles from time to time; those are reported on our help desk and we isolate those issues and resolve those issues as expeditiously as possible.” said Mr. “IT” Warren.
I have talked with members of AFGE, the Veterans Affairs union whose rank and file are saddled with this albatross. Their take on VBMS reliability is a resounding “What reliability?” Most would prefer to go back to the analog version and actually process our claims rather than try to fly a kite with no tail and little aerodynamic stability. When asked if the VA keeps track of the outages, Sen. Burr was assured they do but there were no statistics available at the hearing. Mr. Bozeman promised to keep the committee abreast of the outages. How frequently was also not clarified.
Sen. Burr also asked the Under Secretary if she was willing to provide new metrics above and beyond the stale, Monday morning reports that continue to mislead Congress on their progress (44:32 on the tape). After obfuscating repeatedly following three requests, Sen. Burr said ” I’ll take that as a ‘No’.”
It is apparent that the hierarchy at VBA is reciting old facts as fast as they can in an effort to drown out the drum roll of questions on their continuing failures. At one point, USB Hickey launched into a diatribe about how they were rapidly instructing VSOs in the new techniques of fast-tracking claims and the “fully developed claims” process-currently booming along at 3.8%. VA expects this to be at 20% soon. Sen. Burr tried to figure out how she picked this number out of thin air as opposed to, say 40%. If she is to be believed, the VA is now not only training it’s own personnel but has branched out into the VSO theatre and is making great strides there as well. What does this imply? Very clearly, it enunciates the inability to the VA to do their assigned task-processing our claims. If VA has to foist this off on VSOs and teach them, it implies that VA is unwilling or unable to accomplish it themselves. Why would you need more money and more personnel (and more bonuses) if you are outsourcing this to VSOs who do it for free? By rights, there should be no backlog, or if there is, it should be outside the front doors of all the VSOs rather than down at 810 Vermont Avenue NW. Sadly, that conversation never arose.
Another interesting statistic bubbled up out of Hickey’s color-coded “facts tables” in front of her. According to her, 60% of veterans are represented by VSOs. Ruh-oh, Rorge. That means 40% are self-represented (pro se). If the VSO model is such a win-win proposition for Vets, we have to wonder why so many are striking out on their own. Judging by the very dark circles under her eyes, she must have burned the midnight oil practicing her spiel in front of a mirror trying to make all this sound credible. I’ve listened to her numerous times talking to congressmen at these venues. Each time the conversation seems to slide off into all the new, unforeseen whammys that materialized out of thin air (AO, war, numerous claims, etc.). The large, new number of Agent Orange claims was not a surprise. The NIH has been formulating a correlation between Parkinson’s, hairy (b) cell leukemia and other diseases for years. It’s an ongoing process as science and medicine recognize the link. To foist this off as something unexpected is an outright lie. They anticipated it as early as 2007 and acknowledged it in regulations in 2010. It’s now 2013 and they are trying to blame Vietnam Vets for upsetting the apple cart with a host of unforeseen claims. In fact, the only one who wasn’t blamed this time out was George W. Bush.
Best of all is the rock-and-a-hard-place moment when Mr. Stephen Warren of the VA’s IT office opined about the wondrous new alliance developed between the Department of Defense (DoD) and the VA to integrate their computer networks into a seamless tapestry to facilitate claims processing. Excuse me? What tapestry? The DoD has said the exact opposite. When apprised by the honorable Mr. Burr that no such agreement existed and that the DoD was headed towards a totally separate system that was not going to be integrated, there was no rebuttal. Hickey indicated that she has a private (as in: written on the back of a cocktail napkin) promise and everything is hunky dory.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, the esteemed senator from Georgia, slipped in a question that caught the Under Secretary for Excuses off-guard. Here we are in this brave new world of VBMS electrons flying around awash in an “oxygen-rich environment” and out pops this revelation:
Sen. Isakson:”Last question on the transfer of records from the DoD to the Veterans Administration-that is done electronically now?”
Chipmunk: ” It’s…Today’s.. ah… medical records we receive in paper.”
Isakson: “When you’re fully installed with VBMS, will DoD be able to transfer information electronically?”
Chipmunk:” So, Sen. Isakson. That’s a great question-that’s exactly how… what we’re planning for with the new HAMES system the DoD is building that will be delivered in December of this year…”
Thus we see that the paper game is still in full sway. We also see VA is at the mercy of DoD to produce new software to guarantee the viability on VBMS and hence the target date of 2015 for high-speed claims with 98% accuracy.
Which brings us back to statistics. The NVLSP in their Lexus Nexus Veterans Benefits Manual states in no uncertain terms that the error rate on VA claims is in the neighborhood of 60% or greater. So who is fooling whom? Why bat about statistics of 84 to 87% accuracy when they are patently false? If these are suspect, what does it say about anything else that issues forth from the crew VA Secretary Shinseki sent to Capitol Hill yesterday to beg for more time and money? Face it. You’re going to need more than blonde hair and make-up to moonwalk this past those irritating Senators. Senator Burr seemed especially unimpressed with the Dog and Pony Show.
About the only new thing under the sun was the plethora of new terms, acronyms and colorful catchphrases that peppered the presentation of the Gang of Three. Interavailability and interoperability were priceless. Are those transitive verbs or descriptive adjectives, Mr. Warren? The Veterans’ world sits with parted lips, bated breath, and straining eyes for a timely adjudication. Some wise person once theorized that if you could not impress them with your intelligence, baffling them with bullshit was a good fallback position. Unfortunately, neither ploy was availing yesterday. They have been employed so frequently that crying “Wolf” again fell on deaf ears.
The good news? Veterans everywhere will be overjoyed to know that SSI and the IRS are now on board to send over info on a weekly basis. The fact is, they always have been on board. The bottleneck was getting VA to ask for it. The delay in not asking for six long months is the problem-not compliance in a timely manner. Look at BVA decisions for 2012 and note how many are remanded for lack of SSI or SSD files. VA knows it is imperative to make a decision yet they regularly certify your claims and ship them off with the sure knowledge they will return like a boomerang in a year for lack of same. Yes ma’m. The good, the bad, and the ugly truth is out there.