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Progress Under Pressure: Shining Light on Leadership, Transformation Planning, and Positive Outcomes at the Veterans Benefits Administration

January 14, 2016


On April 8, 2013, the National Academy of Public Administration hosted the Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA) Under Secretary for Benefits, Allison Hickey, as part of its Presidential Appointee Project Seminar Series. Under Secretary Hickey provided candid, impassioned and thoughtful remarks regarding the successes and challenges she has experienced to date as Under Secretary for Benefits, leading more than 20,000 employees in seven business lines among 56 regional offices nationwide. She provided clear evidence about the progress that VBA has made in transforming its operations over the last two years. Under Secretary Hickey also emphasized that more work still needs to be done and that VBA’s transformation journey will continue through 2015.


Through the course of the panel discussion, Under Secretary Hickey helped the audience understand the volume, complexity and scope of VBA’s operating environment with several informative facts and metrics.

VBA processed over 1 million claims last year, which equated to providing $58.6 billion in disability benefits to 4.3 million Veterans and their survivors in FY 2012. In FY12, VBA processed 1 million claims for the third year in a row and completed 300,000 more claims than in 2009.

Over the last decade there has been a 200% increase in first-time claims containing eight or more medical issues. This means that of the one million claims processed in 2012, there were actually 4.7 million medical issues reviewed and analyzed to determine disability benefits – a 27% increase from 2009.

61% of all claims in the inventory are actually supplemental claims from Veterans who have previously filed and are seeking additional benefits, and roughly half of the Veterans in the inventory and backlog are already receiving some compensation benefits from VA.

VBA is working hard to increase the number of claims that come in digitally, but the majority of claims are still being received in paper format and processed manually. This equates to 5,000 tons of paper every year – that’s 200 Empire State Buildings stacked end-to-end.

There is a common misconception that Servicemembers who leave the military for medical reasons end up in the backlog. In fact, wounded, ill and injured Servicemembers have their own, separate VA benefits process called the Integrated Disability Evaluation System, and on average receive their disability compensation within two months of separation from the military.

The Transformation Plan

In the fall of 2011, VBA began development of a Transformation Plan focused on people, process and technology initiatives to improve productivity, quality and access. Leveraging her experience as a retired Air Force Brigadier General, Under Secretary Hickey led the development of this plan but she points out that it all started with VBA employees. Many of the 40+ initiatives being rolled out in today’s plan were employee-generated and owned. VBA began execution of this plan last year and is targeting completion of its goal to eliminate the backlog and process all claims within 125 days at a 98% accuracy rate in 2015.

Positive Outcomes to Date

As a result of its transformation effort, several positive outcomes as well as process and organizational improvements have been realized thus far by VBA. Although perhaps not always immediately evident to the public, these accomplishments illustrate the transformational progress being made by VBA:

By reorganizing its 56 regional offices into cross-functional teams and segmented lanes (Express, Special Operations and Core), VBA now processes 30% of the claims in its inventory through the Express Lane – which includes both 1-2 issue claims and Fully Developed Claims – and moves these claims100 days faster than the Special Operations or Core Lanes.

VBA has realized significant productivity and quality gains through its new Challenge Training initiative. This training method is intense, focused on skill gaps, oriented to provide accelerated feedback on performance and is achieving real results. For example, 2,144 newly trained employees are able to decide 150% more claims per day at a 34% higher accuracy after their first six months when compared to their predecessors who did not receive Challenge Training.

The Fully Developed Claims (FDC) program is an optional initiative that offers Veterans and survivors faster decisions on their compensation, pension and survivor benefit claims. FDCs give Veterans and survivors the chance to provide VA with all the required evidence at the time they submit a claim and certify that they have no more evidence. Thus far, VA has completed 62,000 FDCs at an average of 115 days.

Lastly, and perhaps most impressively, “Generation 1” of the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) launched on January 28, 2013 and has been deployed to 36 of VBA’s 56 regional offices thus far. With the integration of VBMS and VBA’s online eBenefits portal, Veterans have portal-to-decision digital filing capability which allows them to file a claim online using a “Turbo Tax”-like model, upload their own evidence, check the status of a claim or appeal, review VA payments and more – all in a digital environment. Once fully developed and deployed, VBMS will include information sharing, advanced search capabilities and rules-based calculators that can automate rating and disability awards.

The Way Ahead

VBA is currently in what Under Secretary Hickey calls “The Year of Implementation.” In 2014 and 2015, VBA will continue this implementation while also focusing on stabilization, assessment and continuous process improvement. Meeting these goals will require continued perseverance, disciplined execution and firm resolve.

Under Secretary Hickey stressed that there is much work left to do in order to realize the 98% claims quality and backlog elimination goals. The Under Secretary commended VA staff for their conviction and dedication to the transformation journey and reiterated the Department of Veterans Affairs’ central focus to serve Veterans, Servicemembers, their families and survivors. The progress VBA has made in an environment of intense pressure and scrutiny is considerable. Change of this magnitude is not easy and does not happen overnight. With this in mind, it is important to recognize the improvements that have been made thus far and understand how they fit into the overarching Transformation Plan.

About the Veterans Benefits Administration

What if you had to transform 5,000 tons of paper every year into a seamless, electronic system inclusive of decisions support and sophisticated search capabilities to enable faster, more accurate disability compensation for our Veterans? Learn more on how Under Secretary for Benefits, Allison Hickey is leading this mission at Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

Katherine R. Hebert is Manager, Advisory Services, Ernst & Young. Her areas of expertise include marketing and strategic communications; public-private partnership management; innovation and intellectual capital development; multi-sector information sharing; veterans affairs; and homeland security. Ms. Hebert has led the growth of partnerships across the federal government including the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, the Program Manager for Information Sharing Environment, and the Office of Emergency Communications’ Emergency Communications Preparedness Center (ECPC).

Aloha McBride is an Executive Director in Ernst & Young’s Government and Public Service (G&PS) practice focusing on federal health and international assistance. In her role, she supports both the Military Health System and Department of Veterans Affairs in delivering strategic planning, program and change management, business process improvement and performance measurement, operational and financial excellence, internal controls and enterprise risk management services.