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    Subject Term: "Veterans disability compensation"

    7 publications with a total of 26 open recommendations including 4 priority recommendations
    Director: Brown Barnes, Cindy S
    Phone: (202) 512-7215

    3 open recommendations
    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration and the Under Secretary for Benefits to review and update all relevant policies and guidance to reflect the agency's requirement that employees' hours teleworked be recorded in VATAS.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration and the Under Secretary for Benefits to communicate that telework hours should be recorded in VATAS to VBA regional office employees.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration and the Under Secretary for Benefits to develop a process to monitor the quality of data and to ensure that employees' telework hours are recorded accurately and completely in VATAS.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
    Director: Melissa Emrey-Arras
    Phone: (617) 788-0534

    3 open recommendations
    Recommendation: To help ensure VHA medical examiners are prepared to conduct the Gulf War general medical exam, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Health to require medical examiners to complete training, such as the 90-minute Gulf War Illness web-based course, before conducting these exams.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: VA agreed this recommendation and stated it has plans to address it. Specifically, VA said it plans to make its 90-minute web-based training course mandatory for its medical examiners who conduct Gulf War Illness exams.
    Recommendation: To provide more complete information to veterans whose Gulf War Illness claims are denied, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to update guidance to require that decision letters indicate whether Gulf War Illness medical issues were evaluated under both a presumptive and direct service connection method.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: VA agreed this recommendation and stated it has plans in place to address it. Specifically, VA noted it would improve how it communicates decisions to veterans and is in the process of updating its guidance to the regional offices to clarify the language required for its Gulf War Illness decision letters.
    Recommendation: To increase the likelihood of making progress toward developing a single case definition of Gulf War Illness, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Health to prepare and document a plan to develop a single case definition of Gulf War Illness. This plan should include near- and long-term specific actions, such as analyzing and leveraging information in existing datasets and identifying any areas for future research to help VA achieve this goal.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: VA agreed this recommendation and stated it has plans to address it. Specifically, VA noted it would convene a group of subject matter experts to work on a plan - as described in our report - to establish a single case definition of Gulf War Illness.
    Director: Daniel Bertoni
    Phone: (202) 512-7215

    5 open recommendations
    including 1 priority recommendation
    Recommendation: To further align efforts to address appeals workload and improve timeliness of decisions, and reduce the risk that efforts will not go as planned, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits; the Chairman, Board of Veterans' Appeals; and the Chief Information Officer, as appropriate, to ensure development of a timely, detailed workforce plan for recruiting, hiring and training new hires. In particular, this plan should: (1) include detailed steps and timetables for updating training curriculum (such as preparing decisions in a virtual environment) and ensuring office space (such as telework guidance); and (2) incorporate risk mitigation strategies that consider how the timing of recruitment and training dovetails with uncertain time frames for implementing a new appeals process.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: VA took additional steps to recruit, hire, manage space and train additional FTEs to address appeals workloads. However, detailed workforce plans would help ensure timely hiring and proper supports and training. We will close this recommendation when VA provides documentation of its actions and related guidance in several areas: agency telework plan; case adjudication in an virtual environment; status of hiring for FY17; hiring goals for FY18; space management plan indicating how FY17 and FY18 hiring will be accommodated; and plans for ongoing training for remote teleworkers.
    Recommendation: To further align efforts to address appeals workload and improve timeliness of decisions, and reduce the risk that efforts will not go as planned, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits; the Chairman, Board of Veterans' Appeals; and the Chief Information Officer, as appropriate, to develop a schedule for IT updates that explicitly addresses when and how any process reform will be integrated into new systems and when Caseflow will be ready to support a potential streamlined appeals process at its onset.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: VA concurred in principle with this recommendation. In July 2017, VA reported its latest actions to address this recommendation, including documentation of the 6-month road map. However, we continue to believe that while the agile process can help mitigate risks and avoid cost overruns and delays, VA should define schedules beyond 6 months. Such planning allows VA to take additional steps to consider the scope of potential changes required by a new appeals process and have a broad plan in place to ensure that all aspects of the new process are adequately supported by Caseflow.
    Recommendation: To further align efforts to address appeals workload and improve timeliness of decisions, and reduce the risk that efforts will not go as planned, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits; the Chairman, Board of Veterans' Appeals; and the Chief Information Officer, as appropriate, to conduct additional sensitivity analyses based on the assumptions used in projection models to more accurately estimate future appeals inventories and timeliness. In doing so, consider running additional analyses on how these factors, in conjunction with one another, may affect the timeliness and cost of deciding pending appeals.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: VA concurred in principle with this recommendation, noting that it plans to refine the model on a regular basis. However, we continue to believe that additional analyses of potential hiring options and of the compounded effect of assumptions that VA identified is consistent with sound practices and will help the agency anticipate and plan for different contingencies. In addition, as VA goes forward with appeals process reform and begins to collect real-time data, these data could improve modeling accuracy and serve as a valuable management tool. VA also noted plans to analyze, update and refine the model. We will consider closing this recommendation when VA completes these efforts and provides documentation of plans for modeling inventories and resource needs.
    Recommendation: To further align efforts to address appeals workload and improve timeliness of decisions, and reduce the risk that efforts will not go as planned, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits; the Chairman, Board of Veterans' Appeals; and the Chief Information Officer, as appropriate, to develop a more robust plan for closely monitoring implementation of process reform that includes metrics and interim goals to help track progress, evaluate efficiency and effectiveness, and identify trouble spots.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open
    Priority recommendation

    Comments: VA agreed in principle with this recommendation. However, to fully implement it, VA needs to develop a monitoring plan with metrics and interim goals for implementing appeal process reform. Although VA agreed that developing such a plan is valuable for monitoring the implementation of process reform, VA also stated that it considered this recommendation complete and noted that preparing such a detailed plan depends on appeals reform legislation being enacted. While we recognize that VA cannot assume to know the exact provisions that may be included in future enacted legislation, we consider having a more robust monitoring plan - for example, that includes metrics and interim goals to help track implementation progress, evaluate efficiency and effectiveness of the reformed process, and identify trouble spots - to be essential to the successful implementation of a new appeals process.
    Recommendation: To better understand whether appeals process reform, in conjunction with other efforts, has improved timeliness, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits; the Chairman, Board of Veterans' Appeals; and the Chief Information Officer, as appropriate to develop a strategy for assessing process reform--relative to the current process--that ensures transparency in reporting to Congress and the public on the extent to which VA is improving veterans' experiences with its disability appeals process.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: VA concurred in principle with this recommendation and reported on its plans to measure veteran wait times as well as use customer satisfaction surveys to measure the success of the new appeals process. However, while we agree that metrics based on the different options could be valuable for VA, the Congress, and the public, we disagree that VA's focus on measuring timeliness by option is in the best interest of the veteran. Because veterans may pursue more than one option under VBA, the Board or both, we believe that VA's approach does not take into account the veteran's perspective of how long it took for them to receive a final appeal decision. Metrics from the veterans' overall perspective would complement, not replace, metrics for VBA, the Board, and each option. The absence of such metrics raises questions as to how the agency will ensure appropriate resources are devoted to managing appeals under the new versus old process, or intended results are achieved as the new process is implemented. Further, while the legislation requires VA to report a number of metrics, the agency still needs to implement the legislation. We will consider closing this recommendation when VA develops a plan for collecting metrics consistent with this recommendation.
    Director: Valerie C. Melvin
    Phone: (202) 512-6304

    5 open recommendations
    including 1 priority recommendation
    Recommendation: To improve VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits and the Chief Information Officer to develop an updated plan for VBMS that includes (1) a schedule for when VBA intends to complete development and implementation of the system, including capabilities that fully support disability claims, pension claims, and appeals processing and (2) the estimated cost to complete development and implementation of the system.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open
    Priority recommendation

    Comments: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) concurred with our recommendation calling for an updated plan for the Veterans Benefits Management System. However, as of June 2017, the department had not developed a plan that included a schedule for when the Veterans Benefits Administration intends to complete development and implementation of the system, as well as the estimated cost of doing so. We will continue to monitor VA's actions in response to this recommendation.
    Recommendation: To improve VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits and the Chief Information Officer to establish goals for system response time and use the goals as a basis for periodically reporting actual system performance.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) concurred with this recommendation and reported that the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) program office has developed draft metrics for performance of the system. Specifically, VA stated that the office has established key performance indicators as a basis for monitoring the response times of the most commonly executed user transactions (or work events) within VBMS. According to the department, these indicators have been incorporated into the application's continuous monitoring tools for all service level agreements and these agreements are enforced by the VA Service Level Management Board. Nevertheless, as of June 2017, VA had not identified its goals for VBMS response times, nor had the department reported actual system response times. We will continue to monitor VA's actions toward addressing this recommendation.
    Recommendation: To improve VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits and the Chief Information Officer to reduce the incidence of high- and medium-priority level defects that are present at the time of future VBMS releases.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) concurred with this recommendation and, in June 2017, reiterated its plans and procedures for decreasing the incidences of defects in each system release. However, the incidences of high- and medium-priority level defects at the time of recent VBMS releases (i.e., releases 10.1 and 11.0) had increased relative to the number of defects present at the time of the earlier release (i.e., release 8.1) that we described in our report. We will continue to monitor VA's actions and progress in response to this recommendation.
    Recommendation: To improve VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits and the Chief Information Officer to develop and administer a statistically valid survey of VBMS users to determine the effectiveness of steps taken to make improvements in users' satisfaction.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) concurred with this recommendation and in January 2017, conducted a survey of VBMS users that was sent to over 16,000 claims processors at each of its 56 regional offices. Although 52 percent of respondents indicated that they were very satisfied or satisfied with VBMS, the department received only about 2500 responses to the survey for a 15 percent response rate. This low response rate raises concern about whether the survey results are statistically valid. We have requested additional information from VA to determine any actions the department has taken to ensure the statistical validity of its survey results and will assess any information that is provided.
    Recommendation: To improve VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits and the Chief Information Officer to establish goals that define customer satisfaction with VBMS and report on actual performance toward achieving the goals based on the results of GAO's survey of VBMS users and any future surveys VA conducts.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) concurred with this recommendation and conducted a survey of VBMS users in January 2017. However, as of June 2017, the department had yet to develop customer satisfaction goals for VBMS that would provide users with an expectation of the system response times they should anticipate, and management with an indication of how well the system is performing relative to performance goals.
    Director: Bertoni, Daniel
    Phone: (202) 512-7215

    3 open recommendations
    including 1 priority recommendation
    Recommendation: To help ensure that Total Disability Individual Unemployability (TDIU) decisions are well supported and TDIU benefits are provided only to veterans whose service-connected disabilities prevent them from obtaining or retaining substantially gainful employment, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to update the TDIU guidance to clarify how rating specialists should determine unemployability when making TDIU benefit decisions. This updated guidance could clarify whether factors such as enrollment in school, education level, and prior work history should be used and if so, how to consider them; and whether or not to assign more weight to certain factors than others. Updating the guidance would also give VBA the opportunity to re-examine the applicability, if at all, of other factors it has identified as extraneous.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: VA reported in March 2017 that an internal workgroup is in the final stage of collecting and analyzing the data to determine if age should be a factor in deciding Total Disability Individual Unemployability (TDIU), and whether or not to use positive vocational assessments to disallow TDIU claims. VA reported that the workgroup is also in the process of completing an Inter-Rater Variability Assessment (IRVA) to examine the disparity in rating decisions involving entitlement to TDIU and service connection. After completion of the internal study on TDIU and the IRVA, targeted for September 30, 2017, the workgroup will submit its preliminary analysis and recommendations to VBA leadership for a decision on the next courses of action for future policy decisions and will then update any related guidance, as appropriate.
    Recommendation: To help ensure that TDIU decisions are well supported and TDIU benefits are provided only to veterans whose service-connected disabilities prevent them from obtaining or retaining substantially gainful employment, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to verify the self-reported income provided by veterans (a) applying for TDIU benefits and (b) undergoing the annual eligibility review process by comparing such information against IRS earnings data, which VBA currently has access to for this purpose. VA could also explore options to obtain more timely earnings data from other sources to ensure that claimants are working within allowable eligibility limits

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open
    Priority recommendation

    Comments: VA is developing an upfront verification process by expanding the data sharing agreement with Social Security Administration (SSA), which enables VA to receive federal tax information via an encrypted electronic transmission through a secure portal. Once a Total Disability Individual Unemployability (TDIU) claim is received, VA will request the reported income through the secured SSA portal and receive a response within 10-16 days. VA reported that process will serve as a more efficient way to receive income data in a timely manner and maintain the integrity of the TDIU benefit while reducing improper payments. The development and implementation of the upfront verification process for TDIU claimants is anticipated to be completed by July 21, 2017. Meanwhile, VA has reinstituted the data match agreement with SSA through December 2017, which collects earned income (employment wages). The agreement allows VBA to compare reported income earnings of TDIU beneficiaries to earnings actually received. In addition, VA completed the upfront income verification manual guidance and is planning to pilot the guidance prior to implementation. VA also has drafted new manual guidance for the annual eligibility review process and the documents are currently under review. As of March 2017, VA reported delays and stated it planned to fully implement the annual eligibility review process by June 30, 2017.
    Recommendation: To help ensure that TDIU decisions are well supported and TDIU benefits are provided only to veterans whose service-connected disabilities prevent them from obtaining or retaining substantially gainful employment, in light of VA's agreement with the recommendations made by the Advisory Committee on Disability Compensation, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to develop a plan to study the complex TDIU policy questions on (1) whether age should be considered when deciding if veterans are unemployable and (2) whether it is possible to disallow TDIU benefits for veterans whose vocational assessment indicated they would be employable after rehabilitation.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: As of March 2017, a VA workgroup is in the final stages of collecting and analyzing the data to determine if age should be a factor in deciding TDIU, and whether or not the agency will use positive vocational assessments to disallow TDIU claims. Additionally, the workgroup is in the process of completing an Inter-Rather Variability Study (IRVA) to examine the disparity in rating decisions involving entitlement to TDIU and service connection. After completion of the internal study on TDIU and the IRVA, targeted for September 30, 2017, he workgroup will submit its preliminary analysis and recommendations and VA will then decide on the next courses of action for future policy decisions. Due to VA's earlier conclusions, in April 2015, that no immediate changes to its current guidance were necessary, and in the spirit of this recommendation, the status will remain open until the completion of these ongoing efforts.
    Director: J. Christopher Mihm
    Phone: (202) 512-6806

    4 open recommendations
    Recommendation: Recognizing that moving toward a more customer-oriented culture within federal agencies is likely to be a continuous effort, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, to improve Forest Service's customer service standards and feedback review, to: (1) ensure standards include performance targets or goals, (2) ensure standards include performance measures, (3) ensure standards are easily publicly available, (4) develop a feedback mechanism to collect comments agency-wide, which should include guidance or criteria to elevate customer feedback from local and regional offices to identify the need for and to make service improvements.

    Agency: Department of Agriculture
    Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2017, Forest Service provided an update for completing the tasks necessary to respond to our recommendations. In accordance with our recommendations, for each of its customer service standards, the Forest Service has developed goals, targets and measures and we consider this part of the recommendation closed. Forest Service stated the remaining part of the recommendation will be implemented by December 2018. Specifically, the Forest Service stated by December 2018 it will begin to make standards easily publicly available on its public-facing websites. The Forest Service provided the criteria for elevating customer comments and by December 2018 stated it will begin to deploy and collect feedback forms. We will close this recommendation as implemented when standards are publicly available and customer feedback forms are deployed.
    Recommendation: Recognizing that moving toward a more customer-oriented culture within federal agencies is likely to be a continuous effort, the Secretary of Education should direct Federal Student Aid's Chief Operating Officer, to improve Federal Student Aid's customer service standards and feedback review, to: (1) ensure standards are easily publicly available, (2) develop a feedback mechanism that includes guidance or criteria for service providers to elevate customer feedback to identify the need for and to make service improvements.

    Agency: Department of Education
    Status: Open

    Comments: We emailed Department of Education in June 2017 for an update on the status of this recommendation. Once a response is received we will update this recommendation.
    Recommendation: Recognizing that moving toward a more customer-oriented culture within federal agencies is likely to be a continuous effort, the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection should, to improve CBP's customer service standards: (1) ensure standards include performance targets or goals, (2) ensure standards include performance measures.

    Agency: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection
    Status: Open

    Comments: In January 2017, CBP sent an email stating that the agency has done all it can to fully implement the recommendation at this time. Because CBP does not have performance goals or targets for customer service standards this recommendation remains open. In April 2016, CBP provided us with customer service survey questions they use to collect data. Based on our review of that information, we were unable to confirm CBP had established performance targets and goals for the data being collected. As we stated in the report, performance goals should be in a quantifiable and measurable form to define the level of performance to be achieved for program activities each year. Although CBP is collecting new customer service data based on survey responses, without predetermined performance targets that align with a customer service standard it is not clear what or if internal targets or customer needs are being met. In June 2017, we emailed CBP for an update on the status of this recommendation. Once a response is received we will update this recommendation.
    Recommendation: Recognizing that moving toward a more customer-oriented culture within federal agencies is likely to be a continuous effort, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to improve the National Park Service's customer service standards and feedback review, to: (1) ensure standards include performance targets or goals, (2) ensure standards include performance measures, (3) ensure standards are easily publicly available, (4) develop a feedback mechanism that includes guidance or criteria to review and elevate customer feedback from local and regional offices to identify the need for and to make service improvements.

    Agency: Department of the Interior
    Status: Open

    Comments: According to NPS officials, NPS plans on defining a strategy that describes the intended customer experience for highest customer interactions such as Volunteer in Parks program and Teacher engagement program. NPS will align the strategy with overall organizational strategy, share the strategy with all employees (e.g., documentation, training), and update strategy plans to include performance targets and goals for customer service. NPS also plans on soliciting feedback from customers about their experiences with the VIP and Teacher Outreach Programs, collecting unsolicited feedback from customers about their experiences with the organization (e.g., by mining calls, emails, or social media posts), and gathering input from employees about their experiences with customers and their role in delivering the customer experience. NPS plans to share customer experience metrics and models with all employees (e.g., distribute reports and dashboards, conduct training sessions), publish customer service standards on website so that customers know what to expect, and publish customer service data to ensure actual service levels are transparent. Finally NPS plans on piloting the "Federal Feedback" Button and evaluate for expanded use in fiscal year 2018. In June 2017, we emailed NPS for an update on this recommendation. Once a response is received we will update this recommendation.
    Director: Williamson, Randall B
    Phone: (202) 512-7114

    3 open recommendations
    including 1 priority recommendation
    Recommendation: To effectively manage fee basis care spending, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should revise the beneficiary travel eligibility regulations to allow for the reimbursement of travel expenses for veterans to another VAMC to receive needed medical care when it is more cost-effective and appropriate for the veteran than seeking similar care from a fee basis provider.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 2015, VA has taken some actions to address this recommendation, but additional actions are needed to fully implement it. We will update the status of this recommendation when we receive additional information from VA.
    Recommendation: To effectively manage fee basis care wait times and spending, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Health to analyze the amount of time veterans wait to see fee basis providers and apply the same wait time goals to fee basis care that are used as VAMC-based wait time performance measures.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open
    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In October 2014, VHA established a new wait-time goal, which is that veterans should be seen within 30 days of the date that an appointment is deemed clinically appropriate by a VA health care provider, or if no such clinical determination has been made, the date a veteran prefers to be seen for hospital care or medical services. While VHA has been monitoring the timeliness of VHA-based care according to this standard, it has not been applying the same standard to community-based care, including care delivered through the Veterans Choice Program. Therefore, VHA cannot determine whether veterans are receiving care in the community sooner or later than they otherwise would receive care at VA medical facilities. To fully implement this recommendation, VHA needs to take steps to ensure that its wait-time policies and procedures for both VHA-based care and community-based care (fee basis care) are aligned.
    Recommendation: To ensure that VA Central Office effectively monitors fee basis care, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Health to ensure that fee basis data include a claim number that will allow for VA Central Office to analyze the episode of care costs for fee basis care.

    Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
    Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 2015, VA has taken some actions to address this recommendation, but additional actions are needed to fully implement it. We will update the status of this recommendation when we receive additional information from VA.