House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Holds Hearing on National Work Queue

On February 14, 2017, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a hearing entitled “Exploring National Work Queue’s Impact on Claims Processing.”  VA witnesses included Thomas J. Murphy, Acting Under Secretary for Benefits; Willie C. Clark, Sr., Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations; and Ronald S. Burke, Jr., Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations.  A second panel was comprised of Zachary Hearn of the American Legion, Ryan Gallucci of Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Kelsey Yoon of Vietnam Veterans of America.  You can access the webcast here.

VA describes the National Work Queue (NWQ) as “a workload prioritization and distribution tool designed to match claims assignment capabilities with VA workforce capacity, regardless of state jurisdictional boundaries.”  The goal of the program is to provide more timely and accurate decisions.  VA is not yet using NWQ for appeals, although that is planned for the future, possibly as early as summer of 2017.

Highlights from the hearing:

  1. State of backlog: Backlog has increased since implementation of NWQ, from approximately 76,000 in May 2016 to about 99,000 as of the morning of the hearing. VA attributed this increase in part to an increase in receipt of claims.  VA stated it would hope to get the backlog down to somewhere between 25 – 40k, with the acknowledgement that it can never get to 0.  VA stated it would be unrealistic in certain cases, e.g., radiation, to guarantee completion in 125 days.  VA issued guidance a few months ago that appeals staff can only work on appeals and that has resulted in a decrease of appeals in the field, although there is still a significant backlog of appeals at BVA.
  2. Completion of file conversion – VA stated it expects all paper files to be electronic by the end of FY 2018.
  3. Effect of hiring freeze: VA took overtime dollars and converted some of the money into full-time positions. VA is hired up to about 105% of capacity.  People are not being permitted to move out of direct labor positions while the hiring freeze is on.
  4. Other concerns regarding NWQ:
  5. Too many “touches” – a few members expressed concern about too many people needing to “touch” the file to get to the final decision. VA projected the average is about five to six from beginning to completion.  VA states it is looking to keep more claims in the home station.
  6. Effect of NWQ on upcoming Camp Lejeune claims – a few members also expressed concern about the impact of incoming Camp Lejeune claims (since the regulation goes into effect mid-March), with a comparison to Nehmer (which is viewed as part of the reason for the prior claims backlog). VA distinguishes Nehmer claims from Camp Lejeune claims since there is not a retroactive piece to Camp Lejeune regulations.
  7. VSO concerns:
  8. VSOs have the opportunity to review a decision within 48 hours before it becomes final and provide any feedback regarding errors to the rating staff. Since NWQ has resulted in claims moving out of home stations, VSOs are complaining that this movement adversely impacts their ability to review rating decisions.  A result of this problem is more appeals.
  9. Contact information for VA personnel is bad and/or VA does not respond to requests for information, thereby resulting in expiration of time for the 48-hr review and general disconnection from the people making decisions.
  10. VA has not listened to suggestions for improvement.
  11. VA’s self-reported error rate does not line up with VSO data.
  12. VA sacrifices accuracy to achieve timeliness.
  13. VA’s work credit system should be revised.