Veterans' Disability Benefits:

Better Accountability and Access Would Improve the Benefits Delivery at Discharge Program

GAO-08-901: Published: Sep 9, 2008. Publicly Released: Oct 9, 2008.

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Recent military conflicts have increased interest in federal efforts to support servicemembers preparing to leave military service. Through the Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) program, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in collaboration with the Department of Defense (DOD), has made efforts to streamline access to veterans' disability benefits by allowing some servicemembers to file a claim and obtain a single comprehensive exam prior to discharge. This report examines VA's efforts to manage the BDD program and how VA and DOD are addressing challenges servicemembers face in accessing BDD. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed relevant documents and data, interviewed officials, and conducted site visits and interviews at selected military bases.

While VA awards compensation more quickly under BDD than through its traditional process, VA's efforts to manage the BDD program provide limited accountability for achieving optimal results. For example, the agency does not measure the time local VA personnel are developing BDD claims and thus has limited information on potential problems during claim development. Also, VA has reviewed BDD operations in only 16 of the 40 regional offices with the program. Reviewers in those 16 offices conducted limited assessments of some key aspects of program operations, such as ensuring that VA personnel fully developed claims prior to sending them to be rated. Finally, VA has not evaluated initiatives to improve the program, such as its effort to achieve paperless processing of BDD claims. As a result of these gaps in oversight, VA has limited information on how well the program is working or whether further improvements are warranted. VA and DOD have established BDD sites where most servicemembers discharging from the military have access to the program and issued policy guidance in July 2008 to extend access even further. Further, the agencies implemented an alternative predischarge program for members who have no or limited access to the BDD program, such as members of the National Guard or Reserves. However, whether the predischarge program expedites benefits for some members unable to use BDD cannot easily be determined, because VA does not collect sufficient data on these claims. To further improve BDD access, VA and DOD raise awareness of the program through VA benefits briefings, although attendance is not always mandatory. DOD recently established a goal of 85 percent attendance, but has not developed a plan for reaching this goal or a reliable method to measure participation. Finally, while a national agreement between VA and DOD gives local officials flexibility in implementing the cooperative exam process--a key aspect of BDD to streamline access to benefits--some bases have faced challenges maintaining local memoranda of understanding. VA and DOD have not recently evaluated or disseminated promising practices that could address such challenges.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The VOW (Veterans Opportunity to Work) to Hire Heroes Act established a requirement that all servicemembers, with some exceptions, participate in the Transition Assistance Program by November 2012. While DOD has established a means of tracking participation, it did not provide us with a plan that outlines how it will ensure that the participation rate, which is now 100 percent as required by the Act, is reached within this timeframe.

    Recommendation: To ensure that potentially eligible participants are aware of the BDD program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to establish a plan with specific time frames for meeting its goal of 85 percent participation rate in the Transition Assistance Program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) reported that it has developed a plan to track servicemember participation and attendance in the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) using servicemembers' social security numbers and completion of the Pre-separation Counseling Checklist (DD Form 2648/-1). Attendance and participation data will be collected in a central data repository maintained by the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC). The participation rate is calculated each fiscal year by identifying the total number of servicemembers eligible for TAP based on servicemembers' anticipated separation dates and those who served 180 days of active duty service. The number of servicemembers that participated in pre-separation counseling is divided by the total number of eligible servicemembers to calculate the participation rate. Further, DOD receives information from the Department of Labor on headcounts of those attending the Employment Workshop and information from the Department of Veterans Affairs for those attending the VA Benefits briefing. While DOD has improved its approach for documenting servicemembers' participation in TAP using a unique identifier, it is still in the process of developing a methodology for computing participation rates without double counting servicemembers who may attend TAP more than once.

    Recommendation: To ensure that potentially eligible participants are aware of the BDD program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to establish an accurate measure of servicemembers' participation in TAP including VA benefit briefings.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Compensation and Pension Service of the Veterans Benefits Administration has increased the number of Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) oversight visits for FY09. The following regional offices and their intake sites were visited: Nashville (Ft. Campbell); Honolulu (covers Camp Smith Ft. Shafter, Hickam AFB, MCB Hawaii, Pearl Harbor NB, Schofield Barracks, Tripler AMC, and Sand Island CG); Atlanta (Ft. Gordon); Roanoke (Norfolk NB); Baltimore (Ft. Meade); Seattle (Ft. Lewis [covering McChord AFB] and Bremerton [covering Bangor Sub Base, Everett NS, Fairchild AFB, Kitsap NB, and Whidbey. Island NAS]); Louisville (Ft Knox); Chicago (Great Lakes NTC); and Togus (Brunswick NAS), with additional visits scheduled to Newark and Buffalo. BDD oversight visits are also included on the fiscal year 2010 site visit schedule. As of January 2010, VA has revised its site visit protocol to require a review of BDD operations as part of any regional office that has BDD operations and has been using this protocol during its FY 2010 site visits.

    Recommendation: To improve accountability for performance in the BDD program and alternative predischarge program, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary of Veterans Benefits to include program reviews of BDD operations as part of oversight visits to regional offices with BDD operations and take steps to further ensure such reviews are conducted and reported on more consistently.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: VA established a plan to implement its paperless processing claims initiative in multiple phases, including an evaluation of performance at the end of each phase, consistent with our recommendation. Phase 1 ran from August 2010 to April 2011 in which VA tested paperless claims processing in one regional office (Providence, Rhode Island). Phase 2 ran from May 2011 to November 2011 during which VA improved the initiative in multiple ways. For example, VA refined business rules to expedite claims processing and added another regional office (Salt Lake City, Utah) for additional testing. At the end of each phase, VA reviewed what worked well and what did not work well and identified actions to improve performance. Since November 2011, VA has conducted additional reviews, added two regional offices (Wichita, Kansas and Fort Harrison, Montana), and continued to improve the initiative. VA officials meet weekly to discuss the initiative's performance, issues, and risks; and review the status of the initiative every other month.

    Recommendation: To improve accountability for performance in the BDD program and alternative predischarge program, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary of Veterans Benefits to conduct an evaluation of the paperless claims processing initiative to determine which adjustments, if any, are needed to improve its effectiveness.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2008, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) notified its staff that it would begin tracking claims filed by both National Guard and Reserve servicemembers. VBA analyzed the information captured from January to June 2009 to determine to what extent different components are filing claims and receiving timely benefits. It found that Guard/Reserve servicemembers accounted for 18 percent of all pre-discharge claims submitted from January to June 2009. As of June 2009, the average days to complete (ADC) a BDD claim is 77.9 days compared to 198.2 days for original compensation claims submitted after discharge (i.e., the traditional claims process) by veterans of all eras. In June 2009, VBA began tracking ADC for Quick Start pre-discharge claims submitted by servicemembers having fewer than 60 days until discharge.

    Recommendation: To improve accountability for performance in the BDD program and alternative predischarge program, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary of Veterans Benefits to collect data for all claims filed by component (for example, National Guard or Reserves) and analyze the extent to which different components are filing claims and receiving timely benefits under BDD, predischarge and traditional claims processes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: VA considered the costs of these options by conducting a cost benefit analysis and determining that there are no quantifiable measurements that indicate the benefits outweigh the costs of separately reviewing and tracking the rating quality for Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) claims. According to VA, the two sites that rate BDD claims--Salt Lake City, Utah, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina--surpassed the national average in rating quality. Although BDD claims comprise only a portion of claims reviewed by these sites, VA found no evidence to indicate that a separate review of BDD claims would provide a benefit to the process. VA concluded that the cost associated with such a change would outweigh any associated (unquantifiable) benefits.

    Recommendation: To improve accountability for performance in the BDD program and alternative predischarge program, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary of Veterans Benefits to consider the cost of options for separately estimating the accuracy of BDD and predischarge claims.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  7. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has not taken any action to track and/or account for the time needed to develop Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) or pre-discharge claims since VA does not consider in its timeliness the period between receipt of the BDD or pre-discharge claim and the servicemembers separation from service. VA does not have any plans to take further action to track the timeliness of claims development for BDD or pre-discharge claims.

    Recommendation: To improve accountability for performance in the BDD program and alternative predischarge program, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary of Veterans Benefits to track and account for the time needed for claims development activities that occur prior to discharge in the agency's timeliness calculation for BDD and pre-discharge claims.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  8. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Department of Defense (DOD) officials reported that they have not yet discovered promising practices for local implementation of cooperative examinations. The topic was not addressed at a recent conference hosted by the Department of Veterans Affairs, even though DOD officials hoped it would be. GAO plans to continue to work with DOD and the Joint Executive Council to determine how best to identify promising practices.

    Recommendation: To ensure that servicemembers have full access to a cooperative exam process that is convenient, efficient, and consistent for servicemembers, the Chairs of the Joint Executive Council should direct the Benefits Executive Council to identify and disseminate information on promising practices that address challenges local officials commonly face.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Joint Executive Council

 

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