Veterans Benefits Administration:

Clarity of Letters to Claimants Needs to Be Improved

GAO-02-395: Published: Apr 23, 2002. Publicly Released: Apr 24, 2002.

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The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) provided $23 billion in monthly cash benefits to 3.2 million disabled veterans and their families through its compensation and pension program in fiscal year 2001. In the same year, VBA mailed 1.2 million "notification" letters to veterans and their families, informing them of VBA's decisions on compensation or pension benefits claims filed. VBA also sent 1.2 million "development" letters in fiscal year 2001 requesting information in order to make a decision on claims. VBA found in 1995 that its notification and development letters failed to communicate adequately, and launched an initiative, called Reader-Focused Writing, to improve its written communications. In its letters, VBA clearly explained some, but not all, of the key aspects that claimants needed to understand. Beyond the lack of clarity in these letters, various writing deficiencies, such as sequencing and formatting problems, reduced the value of VBA's letters. First, in many of its rating decision documents and development letters, VBA attempts to achieve more than one objective and, in doing so, compromises clarity for the reader. Second, although VBA's central office and some regional offices have developed boilerplate paragraphs for letters and their attachments to increase consistency and quality, some contain writing deficiencies. Third, some letters contain editorial mistakes and boilerplate language not adapted to the claimant's specific situation. Finally, VBA does not systematically evaluate the clarity of its letters, identify writing deficiencies, and provide timely feedback to help correct problems. As a result, VBA lacks an organized process for continuously improving the clarity of its letters.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to VBA, the agency tested a revised letter in focus groups of veterans and employees in June and July 2002, which was later issued and further revised. The most current version was issued in May 2003. Regional offices are required to use the letter and are not permitted to make local modifications.

    Recommendation: As the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) proceeds with its initiative to improve the clarity of its letters, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs should direct the Undersecretary for Benefits to eliminate writing deficiencies in the national development letter to clarify the actions that the claimant should take to substantiate a claim. Once the letter is rewritten, before mandating its use by the regional offices (RO), the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should test its clarity with claimants, their representatives, and employees who process the claims in the ROs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Veterans Benefits Administration's (VBA) letter to GAO dated July 11, 2002, the agency stated that it formed a task force that has identified ways to improve the content and clarity of letters, and that VBA approved the task force's recommendations. VBA developed a training package on guidelines for better writing and issued it in June 2002. The guidance directs VBA employees to (1) write letters that clearly discuss the claim and decision reached in terms understandable to the lay reader; (2) use the active voice and direct the discussion towards the veteran, rather than towards the legal process; (3) limit the discussion to pertinent facts, evidence, and decisions, as opposed to reciting lengthy legal citations; and (4) clearly explain the reason for whatever decision is made. The package included examples of clearly written letters. Also during June 2002, VBA conducted nationwide training on the guidelines via a satellite broadcast.

    Recommendation: As VBA continues its efforts to improve decision documents, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Undersecretary for Benefits to write succinctly, clearly, and in lay terms the reasons for its decisions to grant or deny benefits.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Veterans Benefits Administration's (VBA) July 11, 2002 letter to GAO, states that the VBA staff that conduct ongoing accuracy reviews of claims will include an assessment of the clarity of letters. Furthermore, the staff have already modified the accuracy review database to provide case-specific feedback to regional offices on the clarity of letters. VBA agrees that "September 2003 would be the appropriate time to formally measure letter clarity." In August 2003, the VBA official in charge of the accuracy review program informed GAO that VBA is currently working with a contractor to develop the review criteria for clarity, and that the recurring reviews for clarity will start at the beginning of fiscal year 2004.

    Recommendation: As VBA proceeds with its initiative to improve the clarity of its letters, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Undersecretary for Benefits to expand the Systematic Technical Accuracy Review Program or choose other ways to systematically evaluate whether letters (including their attachments) are clear to the claimant. The evaluation method should include obtaining periodic input on letter clarity from claimants, their representatives, and employees who process claims. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should use the results of this evaluation to continuously improve letters by identifying writing deficiencies and providing timely feedback to enable the responsible entity (e.g. central office or ROs, as appropriate) to take corrective actions. In September 2003, when VBA projects that its large inventory of backlogged claims will be reduced, the agency should formally measure letter clarity and hold itself accountable for improved clarity.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

 

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