Wednesday, May 28, 2008

GAO finding: No accountability for claims processors

GAO faults training for VA claims processors

By Kelly Kennedy - Staff writer
Posted : Wednesday May 28, 2008 6:18:36 EDT

Although the Veterans Affairs Department has added thousands of staff to help process disability claims, a new study finds those new employees face no consequences if they don’t attend mandatory training.

And because the caseload is so heavy, instructors aren’t always available to provide on-the-job training for new employees.

The Veterans Benefits Administration “is taking steps to strategically plan its training, but does not adequately evaluate its training and may be falling short in some areas of training design and implementation,” the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Tuesday.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, asked GAO to find out what training is provided and whether it is uniform; how well it is implemented and evaluated; and how it compares with performance management practices in the private sector.

The questions came after veterans testified that the disability compensation system is Byzantine in complexity, and that it takes months — sometimes years — to make it through the process.

From September 2007 to May 2008, GAO looked at four VBA regional offices, in Atlanta; Baltimore; Milwaukee; and Portland, Ore.

VA officials said it takes at least two years to properly train disability claims employees, and they must complete 80 hours of training a year. New employees have three weeks of intense classroom training before they begin several months of on-the-job training at their home offices.

But “because the agency has no policy outlining consequences for individual staff who do not complete their 80 hours of training per year, individual staff are not held accountable for meeting their annual training requirement,” the GAO found. “And, at present, VBA central office lacks the ability to track training completed by individual staff members.”

In 2007, VBA conducted 67 centralized training sessions for 1,458 new claims processors, compared with 27 sessions for 678 new employees in 2006.

VBA’s online training tool, the Training and Performance Support System, was found to be out of date, too theoretical, and lacking in real-life examples. Employees at one office did not know what the system was.

GAO also found that more experienced staff members felt training was not helpful because it was redundant or was not specific to the work they do, and some said the training is adapted directly from training for new employees. They also said they did not have time to spend 80 hours a year in training because their caseloads are too heavy.

“A number of staff from one regional office noted that instructors were unable to spend time teaching because of their heavy workloads and because instructors’ training preparation hours do not count toward the 80-hour training requirement,” the GAO said. “Staff at another regional office told us that, due to workload pressures, staff may rush through training and may not get as much out of it as they should.”
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