Veterans' Disability Benefits:

Expanded Oversight Would Improve Training for Experienced Claims Processors

GAO-10-445: Published: Apr 30, 2010. Publicly Released: Apr 30, 2010.

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The Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-389) mandated that GAO evaluate the Department of Veterans Affairs VA training for disability claims processors. This report answers the following two questions: (1) How appropriate is the training provided to experienced disability claims processors? (2) How adequate is the Veterans Benefits Administration's (VBA) monitoring and assessment of this training? To address these questions, GAO conducted a web-based survey of a nationally representative sample of claims processors, interviewed VBA headquarters and regional office officials, and reviewed VBA training material, relevant federal statutes, regulations, and court cases.

VBA'sannual training requirements and the training received by experienced staff--those with more than two years experience--may not be appropriate, based on the results of GAO's survey of claims processors nationwide. Experienced claims processors had problems with five key areas: the number of hours of training required, the amount of training received on particular topics, the usefulness of some subject matter, the way training is delivered and the timing of training. GAO's survey results indicated that more than half (55 percent) of experienced claims processors found it difficult to meet VBA's 80-hour annual training requirement given their workload. In addition, based on its survey, GAO estimates that 45 percent of supervisors of experienced Rating Veterans Service Representatives (RVSR) and 53 percent of supervisors of experienced Veterans Service Representatives (VSR) thought that only some or few, if any, of the experienced staff they supervise need 80 hours of training to perform their job duties effectively. Many experienced staff also thought they received too little training on some topics and too much on others. For example, 42 percent thought they received less training than needed in how to rate claims involving special monthly compensation and 34 percent thought they received more than enough training on records management. Finally, opinions varied on how helpful the various modes of training were. Nearly all claims processors, in general, considered on-the-job experience to be the method of training best suited to their needs. An estimated 42 percent of all experienced claims processors, in general, felt that some of the training they received was delivered too late, suggesting that regional offices may not always deliver the training needed by experienced claims processors in a timely manner. According to Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, federal agencies must have control mechanisms in place to help ensure that all employees receive appropriate and consistent training. Under its recently revised annual training requirements, VBA delegates considerable responsibility for training experienced claims processors to each of its 57 regional offices. In particular, regional offices are responsible for ensuring that claims processors complete annual training requirements. Each office also determines what topics are covered for half of the required training hours, what material to provide on each of these topics, and how and when the training should occur. Regional offices also have considerable discretion in determining what activities qualify as training. However, VBA lacks controls to ensure that regional offices deliver required training and record completed training in a consistent manner, and does little to assess the appropriateness or consistency of the training experienced claims processors receive.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Undersecretary for Benefits to ensure that claims processors receive the types of training required by VBA each year, VBA should adopt procedures for routinely monitoring and ensuring compliance with annual training requirements, including more fully using its Learning Management System (LMS) to ensure that claims processors receive required Core Technical Training Requirements (CTTR) and ad hoc training on emerging topics.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: VBA improved its ability to monitor the quantity and type of training received by claims processors by publishing a national curriculum for claims processors, as shown in VBA Fast Letter 11-04, published on January 11, 2011. The Fast Letter established mandatory training for all claims processors and identified those lessons in a VA Learning Management System (LMS) curriculum. With this improvement, future LMS reports drawn by C&P Service will indicate the number of hours drawn from VSR or RVSR-specific curricula. This improvement will allow VBA to monitor compliance with regard to both the quantity and type of training.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Undersecretary for Benefits to ensure that regional offices record training activities consistently in the LMS so that LMS data are reliable, VBA should develop clear written guidance on the types of activities all regional offices should and should not count toward completion of annual training requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: VBA Fast Letter 11-04 provides clear, written guidance on the types of activities regional offices should and should not count toward completion of annual training requirements. The Fast Letter states that regional offices will fulfill the national training curriculum requirements by utilizing lessons from the C&P training website. The curricula for all mandatory training and station-determined training are now listed as national Learning Management System (LMS) items with nationally distributed training materials. Locally developed training materials can only be used to fulfill the national training requirements if the material has been submitted to C&P Service for concurrence. Submitted material is reviewed and either rejected, added to the national curriculum, or incorporated into pre-existing materials. A national LMS item number will be provided for any new material, and the material will be posted on the C&P training website.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Undersecretary for Benefits to ensure that training is appropriate for experienced claims processors, VBA should develop and implement a written strategy for systematically assessing the content, mode and timing of training experienced claims processors receive in regional offices and make improvements, when indicated. Such a strategy should include a standardized approach for (1) obtaining and analyzing feedback from experienced claims processors on the appropriateness of non-CTTR training provided by regional offices and (2) obtaining input from all regional office managers and training coordinators on the appropriateness of CTTR course content.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The course evaluation tool on the C&P Service training website was amended as of January 28, 2011, to obtain all feedback on technical and non-technical training. This feedback will be analyzed and used to make necessary improvements in training. During the Veterans Service Center Managers call in February 2011, the C&P Service informed regional offices about the amended tool and that they are required to complete the evaluations. Fast Letter 11-04, dated January 11, 2011, serves as a written strategy for systematically assessing the content, mode, and timing of training that claims processors receive at regional offices. The National Training Curriculum (NTC), formerly referred to as Core Technical Training Requirements, includes both technical and non-technical training material. Regional office managers and training coordinators provide input on the appropriateness of NTC training courses by utilizing the "Non-Student NTC Evaluations" link provided on the C&P Service training website. Experienced claims processors provide the same type of feedback on training provided by regional offices by utilizing the evaluations links on the training website that are specific to their positions.

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