The Veterans Benefits Administration has over 9,000 claims processors for disability compensation. In 2019, VBA processed over 1.4 million claims and provided $88 million in benefits to veterans with disabilities.
Training is key to ensuring processors have the skills to effectively and efficiently handle claims—especially as VBA hires more staff, implements new initiatives, and changes eligibility criteria for assigning a degree of disability and compensation level.
VBA followed some leading practices for training, but needs a comprehensive plan and performance goals for its training program. Our recommendations address this and other issues.
What GAO Found
The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has over 9,000 employees who process veterans' claims for disability compensation. To ensure claims processors have the skills needed to handle disability claims efficiently and effectively, training is a key strategy. Training is particularly important as VBA hires more staff and implements new initiatives.
GAO assessed VBA's training program for disability claims processors against leading practices for training related to planning, design, implementation, and evaluation. GAO found that VBA partially applied these leading practices.
- Planning. VBA's planning included some efforts to determine the skills and competencies needed for a trained workforce to process claims, consistent with leading practices. However, it lacks an integrated and comprehensive plan to ensure training improves individual and agency performance. Specifically, VBA's planning has not been guided by training program goals or a governance structure that sets priorities with a strategic focus on how efforts will contribute to results. Instead, VBA has used a project-by-project planning approach.
- Design. In designing its training program, VBA has used a variety of training delivery mechanisms, consistent with leading practices. For example, mechanisms include self-paced and instructor-led classroom training and software to manage and deliver training. However, VBA lacks criteria to inform its selection of the most appropriate mechanism to deliver each course.
- Implementation. Regional offices and VBA headquarters work together to deliver training, per leading practices. However, VBA's policies to monitor the extent to which claims processors have received required training are incomplete. Specifically, it lacks policies requiring VBA to identify and correct deficiencies in completing annual training for experienced claims processors.
- Evaluation. VBA collects and incorporates some stakeholder feedback about training and recently finalized plans to evaluate certain training, consistent with leading practices. However, VBA's efforts do not include key stakeholder perspectives, such as those of experienced staff and their supervisors, and VBA does not have policies to ensure evaluations are consistently planned and conducted. GAO's prior work indicates that evaluation has been a consistent gap in VBA's management of training.
VBA officials described several challenges to fully applying leading practices for planning, such as other higher priorities and the frequency with which the agency is tasked with urgent or emerging training needs. VBA also stated that it has some specific strategies in place to guide training efforts, such as setting annual training requirements. Nevertheless, fully applying leading practices for training would provide VBA greater assurance that its workforce is sufficiently skilled to efficiently and effectively process disability claims and provides high-quality service to veterans.
Why GAO Did This Study
In fiscal year 2019, VBA processed over 1.4 million claims for disability compensation and provided about $88 billion in benefits to veterans injured in service to their country. Claims processors receive training to help them determine veterans' eligibility for these benefits.
GAO was asked to review VBA's management of training for disability claims processors. This report examines the extent to which VBA applied relevant leading practices identified by GAO for planning, designing, implementing, and evaluating training, among other objectives.
GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, policies, and training materials; assessed VBA's efforts against relevant leading practices for training in the federal government; and interviewed officials from VBA headquarters and managers and claims processors at four regional offices, selected for variation on office size, region, and claims workload.
GAO is making 10 recommendations, including that VBA establish an integrated and comprehensive plan and performance goals for its training program; document and use criteria to inform its selection of training delivery mechanisms; develop policies to monitor compliance with required training; collect and incorporate stakeholder feedback; and evaluate training on a recurring basis. VA generally concurred with GAO's recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Veterans Benefits Administration||The Under Secretary for Benefits should establish performance goals for VBA's training program for disability claims processors. These program-level goals should have specific targets to provide a basis for comparing actual program performance with expected results. (Recommendation 1)|
|Veterans Benefits Administration||The Under Secretary for Benefits should establish a governance structure that identifies clear lines of authority among the VBA offices responsible for guiding strategic training efforts and establishing clear accountability for the success of these efforts. (Recommendation 2)|
|Veterans Benefits Administration||The Undersecretary for Benefits should develop and document an integrated and comprehensive training plan or strategy for its program for training disability claims processors. The plan should align training program goals with VBA goals and document how program activities will be prioritized to meet goals. (Recommendation 3)|
|Veterans Benefits Administration||The Undersecretary for Benefits should document and use criteria to guide analysis for when a given training delivery mechanism should be used. Goals for the training program could be helpful in determining the appropriate criteria. (Recommendation 4)|
|Veterans Benefits Administration||The Undersecretary for Benefits should establish and monitor minimum training requirements to prepare all course instructors at regional offices to conduct claims processor training. (Recommendation 5)|
|Veterans Benefits Administration||The Undersecretary for Benefits should develop and implement a policy detailing VBA offices' responsibilities to identify and address any deficiencies in claims processors' completion of annual regional office-selected training hours. (Recommendation 6)|
|Veterans Benefits Administration||The Undersecretary for Benefits should develop and document a policy and related processes for collecting and incorporating feedback from relevant stakeholders on the strengths and weaknesses of its claims processor training program. This effort could be completed independently or as part of VBA's evaluation planning efforts for disability claims processor training. (Recommendation 7)|
|Veterans Benefits Administration||The Undersecretary for Benefits should ensure that Compensation Service completes and implements a plan to evaluate training of disability claims processors that aligns with leading practices, such as those outlined in VBA's strategy for evaluating training. (Recommendation 8)|
|Veterans Benefits Administration||The Undersecretary for Benefits should establish a policy to help ensure recurring training evaluation efforts that align with leading practices, such as those outlined in VBA's strategy for evaluating training. (Recommendation 9)|
|Veterans Benefits Administration||The Undersecretary for Benefits should collect, analyze, and share lessons learned from the Blue Water Navy training effort with internal stakeholders, including those from offices responsible for training. (Recommendation 10)|