SHOWDOWN AT THE VARO CORRAL


downloadThings have been “brewing” shall we say, between the VA and their slaves down in the galley at the mighty ship Columbia of South Carolina. This has been going on for quite some time but one would think that quarreling siblings could reach consensus on the proper staffing levels at these venues and spare Veterans further delay in their claims.

If one were to think that, one would be horribly wrong. Indeed, VSR, RVSR and DRO positions go begging  for lack of qualified personnel. . . . . or do they? The VA is divided into two camps, apparently, over this enigma.  The VA seems hell-bent  they are going to shrink Regional Offices down to the bone on personnel and  make it appear they are moving Heaven and Earth to speed up the impenetrable backlog.  The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE union) boys and girls are aghast at what they are being saddled with and by extension, blamed for.  As usual, there are two sides to a coin. I like the attorneys who say “Jeesh. Those neanderthals down at Fort Fumble can’t locate their derriere with a methane witching stick.” I am coming to believe what I am reading here simply because it resonates with what we are all experiencing with our claims. In any business model, if they are short of widget benders on the production line, they move guys up from the warehouse to fill in until the personnel shortage is resolved. But when the boss is laying off widget benders at the height of widget season for no good reason, you have to start asking very pointed questions. We are all euphemistically labeled “stakeholders” in this process. That means we have a vested interest in what is afoot at the VAROs across the fruited plain. If it is obvious that VA is complaining mightily about how there are a dearth of raters or, in the alternative, a plethora of claims deluging them, then it behooves us to ascertain who’s blowing the smoke rings. Our obligation as stakeholders demands it. When the AFGE folks tasked with the job start producing data extracted via the FOIA that conclusively reveals VA is the the miscreant, then we are really in deep doo-doo. Put another way. We’re being bullshitted along with Congress and VA foolishly thinks the AFGE is never going to reveal the depths of their deception. 

The missive is addressed to the good members of Congress tasked with the responsibility of trying to figure out what in Sam Hill VA does with all it’s time, not to mention its money. Now that the bonus bucks party is over and the annual getaway to Orlando has been scotched (no pun intended to those poor souls at Vermin Ave. NW), things are looking rather glum and grim.  There are really no more excuses left other than to fire up the VBMS and get cooking. One little problem seems to be raising its ugly head though. All this time the attorneys have been making cruel jokes about the raters’ ineptitude and we now find out there ARE no raters or damn few of them-inept, or ept, for that matter to blame for all this. Quite simply, the VA has been allowing them all to retire (or quit) and not filling (or eliminating) the positions. All this in the middle of the largest backlog in the history of the organization. Now, does that sound like sabotage? Fundamentally changing the way they’ve done business for centuries by continuing the same program? Innovation that is cutting edge and the Final Frontier of claims?   

stoningofsinnerAll this time we’ve been hurling stones at the wrong sinners. As with most yarns, there is indubitably more than one culprit to blame. VA has done an admirable job of laying the blame at the foot of massive numbers of Veterans filing and the quirks of a ten-year plus war. I would direct the reader’s attention to the fact that the numbers of Vets, as a measure of population, have remained static for the whole time we are discussing i.e. from 2001. Yep. Statistically, there are no more Vets today that there were ten years ago. If you took a cross-section of America and looked at how many were under arms after 9/11 who suffered a disability  and compared it to today’s statistics, the difference in the numbers is insignificant. How can that be? Well, let’s analyze it.

Vets are created every day by virtue of being retired or separating. Judging by past wars and tables, 22 percent are injured on a scale of 0 to 100% in any war. The numbers are marginally lower in peacetime. After Vietnam, we would naturally have expected to see a discernible bulge in the VHA python but it was notably absent. Growth of Veterans with rated disabilities was absolutely flat. There was no extraneous spike in ratings to encompass the para/quadraplegics or those missing bits and pieces of their anatomy. Gradually, a number of World War One/ Two Vets and their wives expired and the ranks of the Korean and Vietnamese War filled in the gaps. Again, there was no discernible change in the numbers statistically of the TDIU/100%ers. Fast forward to the present and view these statistics. Somehow, 100% disabled (as well as all others) are magically dying at the very same rate as those who VA promotes to the rank of 100%. Nothing has changed. Amazing but true.

If you view the VA ratings game in perspective , it makes perfect sense. Imagine a company that only has so many slots for senior management (100% P&T), a larger group of regional branch managers (TDIU) and last but not least, an immense work force made up of journeymen and apprentices (0% to 50%). There are X slots open for advancement. You essentially have to wait for someone to expire to advance to the next ratings level. VA is adroit at this game. With all the tools available in their repertoire, they can delay and deny at will and advance only the most pressing or egregious cases as necessary out of the normal queue awaiting entry or a ratings increase. Think back to your childhood and play Red light! Green light! in your mind’s eye. Now substitute the Central Office in DC doing the same.

What the article reveals is an artificial brake on the process by virtue of an insufficient number of raters to keep up with the volume-i.e. not enough widget benders. If you have been brainwashed into believing this scenario, it goes without saying that you implicitly trust the folks trotting out the numbers. The problem is that the raters weren’t born at night nor were they birthed the night before last. They are being tarred and feathered as being lazy, inept and uncaring when the truth of the matter is that the poohbahs at the Central Office are concocting this “perfect storm” to impede the ratings progress of the ROs. All the while they are patiently explaining that all is well in Mudville at the bottom of the ninth.

Excuses are like assholes and everyone has one as the saying goes. Murphy’s addendum is that they all stink. Here, the VA is pawning off the stink on the few raters left at the ROs and foisting any and all reason for delay on, of all things, an overwhelming backlog. Millions have been spent ramping up training for the new wave of Lean Six Sigma Kaizen with their shiny new green belts when there are no such animals afoot. Or in the alternative, these new green belts are being assigned to work as lowly “gatherers of evidence” with no authority beyond choosing to put cream in their coffee or not.

The Columbia AFGE boys have not read the VA’s Rodney King “Can’t we all just get along?” email. They see the glaring flaw in the system and are unwilling to be the whipping boy any longer. How many Senators and Congressman can file inquiries asking what the hold up is without someone finally spilling the beans?  According to this document, the rubber band snapped. AFGE is mad as Hell and they aren’t going to take it (the blame) anymore. I concur. It’s a sad day when these gentlemen are forced to employ the same FOIA we use to excavate the damning documents from VA excuse mongers. Facetiousness is somehow lacking as a descriptive adjective for this.

The information gleaned from AFGE’s FOIA hunt is self-evident. VA is laying off raters in Wilmington, Delaware (and elsewhere) and at the same time brokering claims to them from other VAROs in a Mad Hatter tea party of  insanity. When Wilmington cries “Uncle”, the Central Office uses this to buttress their claims of inundation and yet another round of hiring. Pardon me if I ask where all the new hires are going. To Nationwide is on your side?  AFGE  sees no relief on the horizon and only further erosion of desperately needed ratings  hierarchy to keep up with the flood of claims. Promotions within VAROs are also stymied for some unknown reason. All I see is a system of too many chiefs and not nearly enough Indians. To add insult to injury, every Regional Office is allowed to make up new rules refusing to to anoint any new warriors (raters) at their own whim.

The VA hierarchy is being repopulated with a new breed trained by the old. They are staid and unbending. They rebel at the mere suggestion of innovation. They will stop at nothing to sabotage this process and keep us in the dark ages. They have evinced this desire continuously since the first calls went out in 1988 to revamp the process at the dawn of the VJRA. Doesn’t anyone find it incongruous that any process could be so unwieldy and impossible to tame for over two decades in spite of all the newfangled innovations like computers, bar codes, QR codes and the like? How do Geico and Allstate do it? What is the mystery? Remember, we’re talking Insurance Company logic here. Either you rear-ended the insured or you didn’t. Or in the VA vernacular, either you had tinnitus in service or were subjected to it by the requirements of your job. . . . or you were not. VA somehow can take this out to a 270- day investigation with a negative finding entailing 4,000 hours of paperwork and time on the clock. The sum of billable hours to make this determination will far exceed the entitlement of $125.00 per month that the VA claimant will accrue for life and no one blinks an eye. That’s if the claimant doesn’t appeal the denial. If this matriculates to the CAVC, I have no doubt that the sum would be far into the millions before VA acquiesced. Sadly, most claims are legitimate and treated in this very same fashion. Worse yet, we ostracize the ones (AFGE) who are hamstrung and prevented from doing the right and honorable thing. Have any of you read the M-21 or even tried to fathom the intricacies of determining if a dependent child is truly a legitimate entitlement? Seems pretty simple until you find out a RO only has one guy assigned to this and he’s 16 months out because each one requires a day of friggin’ paperwork to input one child into the computer.

Granted, there are no dearth of chowderheads manning the 827-1000 Dial a Prayer phone banks. Have mercy on them. They are FNGs. They work off a menu like a phone bank in a boiler room operation. They really know less than you and are constrained to appear knowledgeable. I’m sure they get a lot of flak from irate Vets who are frustrated and it eventually leaks out. I solved this problem by using the IRIS system and it will help you folks too. It may take 5-10 days but the ordnance will land on target and do far more for you.

Here’s The Senior Raters website. It has a wealth of information about why it takes so long. Interestingly enough, it is not a compendium of excuses as to why they can’t get from A to B. It is, however, a damning  indictment of of how VA runs their insurance company. Having no love for unions, I’d be tempted to vote for India to solve the problem but I’d hate to see all those jobs go offshore. Besides that, their accent throws me. How about we subcontract this out to Our good buddies at “Like a good Neighbor, State Farm is there”? They could hire all the raters and it would be like shovel-ready jobs. If and when they ever got caught up, we could bring the upper management to 810 Yellow Brick Road NW and they’d all rate happily ever after…

About asknod

VA claims blogger
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3 Responses to SHOWDOWN AT THE VARO CORRAL

  1. Frank says:

    Great post! AskNOD’s patron has outdone himself.
    “How do Geico and Allstate do it?”
    For that matter, how does IRS do it? The SEC?
    Seven years ago (!), on March 3, 2007, Harvard Kennedy School’s Linda J. Bilmes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, in testimony before Congress, unfavorably compared the way the VA processes disability claims vs. the way the IRS processes tax refunds and the way the medical insurance claims “industry” processes claims payments.
    See: http://veterans.house.gov/witness-testimony/ms-linda-j-bilmes

    In part, (non-contiguously) she had this to say:

    “First, the VBA is currently overwhelmed with the volume of claims it is receiving, leading to a huge backlog.”

    “Second, the claims process itself is long, cumbersome and paperwork-intensive. The VBA takes an average of 177 days (about 6 months) to process an initial claim, and an average of 657 days (about 2 years) to process an appeal. This is 22% below the agency’s own target goal of 145 days. It is also far below the standards of the private sector medical insurance industry, which settles 30 million insurance claims — including appeals — within an average of 89.5 days…..
    I believe that the agency as currently structured is simply not capable of settling the current and projected volume of claims in a timely manner.”

    “I believe that finding an answer to the claims problem requires us to think outside the box. I would like to offer several proposals that do this.

    1. First, for the next two years, the VBA should accept and pay all disability claims by returning GWOT soldiers at face value — and then audit a sample of them. This is essentially the same system that is used elsewhere in government, for example, the IRS for taxes and the SEC for filings. This idea would involve retraining some of the claims specialists as auditors, freeing up the remaining specialists to focus on assisting non GWOT veterans claims, which should reduce the backlog of old claims. At the same time, this bold step would ensure that new claimants do not fall through the cracks or endure months of bureaucratic delay.

    2. Second, the VBA should replace the cumbersome 0-100 scale for disabilities with a simple four-level ranking: zero disabled, low disability, medium disability, and high disability. This would immediately streamline the process, reduce discrepancies between regions, and likely cut the number of appeals. The VBA should create a “short form” for returning veterans, using this four-level ranking and set a goal of processing all claims within 60 days of receipt. This new system should be up and running within two years, including retraining of the workforce and developing necessary guidelines and appeals procedures.”

  2. Bruce says:

    Man this shit is getting old with the RO’s. In the words of The Who “this is no social crisis just another tricky day for you”

  3. Jim says:

    Solutions? Rescind the War Powers Act! Limit terms for politicians, abolish incentive awards for upper crust civil servants, downsize VA management, abolish the VA court due to in-breeding of justices with corporate and criminal law. Don’t sell fissionable materials to the Communist Vietnamese. Fly nap-of-the-earth, dispense a lot of chaff, keep a low profile and maybe balance foreign trade.

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