The walls of Dr. Paul R. Lawrence’s office in Washington are covered with little framed photographs from various visits to VA regional offices, award presentations, speaking engagements and meetings with veterans served by the increasingly complex arm of government he leads. Lawrence points out one photo that sums up much of what the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has been trying to accomplish over the last two years. It’s a big empty room in Boston. Not long ago, that room resembled most VA regional offices across the land, where yellowing stacks of undecided benefits applications, military records, medical reports and file folders awaited attention from overloaded processors.
“The work we are doing now – we are getting better,” says Lawrence, a former U.S. Army captain who now serves as Under Secretary for Benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “The backlog last December reached a historic low (64,783) for the number of claims over 125 days. Remember back in the day (2013), it was like 611,000? So that’s a big deal.”
There have been three pretty “big deals” for VBA to execute since Lawrence was confirmed in April 2018: the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, known as the “Forever GI Bill” which was delivered Dec. 1, 2019; the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act (AMA), signed by President Trump onstage at the 99th American Legion National Convention in 2017 and set in motion Feb. 19, 2019; and the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act’s Jan. 1, 2020, which resumed benefits eligibility for those presumed to have been affected by Agent Orange exposure offshore.
Each of the big deals has come with its own implementation challenges. VBA began deciding Blue Water Navy claims when the law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020 after a six-month ramp-up, meaning that all three major initiatives, all of which were supported by The American Legion, set sail within an 11-month window. Now, says Lawrence, it’s up to him and VBA’s 25,830 employees to “continue to streamline processes and re-allocate resources. As we bring in more technology, we free up people’s time to do more important problems and work on harder things. That’s really our intention.”
The three major implementations – and the mission to meet or exceed goals in VBA’s eight service lines, which range from home loans to vocational rehabilitation, as well – are among the reasons Lawrence and the agency’s staff members have been wearing buttons and posting on social media their hashtag proclamation for Fiscal 2020: #BestYearEver. “We’re talking about everybody really having a solid year, having the best year we can possibly have for veterans,” Lawrence says.
Could it really be that this long-beleaguered bureaucracy is turning a historic corner, becoming faster, more efficient and technologically adept?
“I think so,” says Lawrence, an author and PhD who spent 30 years as a management consultant for companies and organizations that deal with the federal government. “Nothing’s perfect, but we are processing more claims faster than ever before. We’re producing more positive outcomes than ever before.”
The American Legion and VBA work closely together at the national, regional and local levels. More than 3,500 accredited American Legion service officers provide free assistance for veterans and their families in the VA claims application process. And for years, The American Legion has pushed for improvements in the system to shrink the backlog of undecided applications and appeals. The American Legion also strongly supported expansions in the Forever GI Bill, a 2017 reboot of education benefits officially named in honor of Harry W. Colmery, the American Legion past national commander who drafted the original version in 1943. The American Legion has also worked persistently since the late 1970s to achieve recognition and disability benefits for Vietnam War veterans suffering with conditions related to Agent Orange exposure and strongly supported the Blue Water Navy Act that restored benefits for qualified applicants.
These three big deals each traveled a different path. By the time the Appeals Modernization Act – which streamlines, simplifies and speeds up appeals from veterans disputing their claims decisions – was signed into law in 2017, months of planning had gone into it. “Appeals modernization had the very good fortune of actually beginning about a year earlier (in its planning) than August 2017,” Lawrence explains. “The Legion was involved in this, with meetings with all the stakeholders, VBA and Congress. In the summer of ‘16, everyone got together and designed what eventually became appeals modernization. So, in many ways they had a running start … the processes were in place. The team had worked together. All risks were managed, and even though we had a hearing where GAO was pretty uncharitable to us – they were skeptical of us getting done on time – I think a lot had to do with the beginning in ’16, with all the stakeholders, to include The American Legion, executing a plan that was really well thought out.”
The AMA process was installed in February 2019 when goals were set to complete appeals decisions within 125 days, on average. In the two decision lanes under VBA, almost 200,000 AMA claims were completed, averaging 66 (supplemental claims) and 47 (higher level) days to complete, as of the end of January. “I think appeals modernization is a huge success,” Lawrence says. “I wasn’t there at the birth of it, so credit goes to all the folks who thought about it. When I go out, to include American Legion posts, and hear from people, they like this. They feel that both of these lanes are really powerful and finite.”
The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act “traveled a different journey,” Lawrence says. “They got the law passed, and they got some money for I.T., which was appropriated but never authorized, so it wasn’t very clear. I showed up and realized things were not going very well. We missed a lot of deadlines and perpetuated the perception that we couldn’t do anything. There was a lot of angst around that. We were behind on paying veterans their money. That was a big problem, a real challenge to figure out. We had to stop and reset. The secretary was very supportive and said we will put the law on pause for a year while we get it reset.”
The revamped GI Bill was officially delivered by the revised deadline of Dec. 1, 2019, as promised, after several bugs – significantly a completely new process to pay monthly housing allowances to student veterans – were worked out. “Once we cracked that code, we still had to do a lot of recalculations. More people came. We had to process more claims, answer more phone calls, do more things like that. There are also other features – we introduced more money for STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – that will get you nine more months of benefits if you pursue such degrees.” Also added was the VET-TEC (Veterans Employment Through Technology Education Courses) program, which pays GI Bill benefits for the cost of certification training to work at big technology companies. And, as significant changes were being made to the revamped GI Bill, the average number of days to process an ordinary original application decreased from 24.1 to 18.7 days between Fiscal 2019 and January 2020.
Since the Post 9/11 GI Bill was enacted on Aug. 1, 2009, multiple adjustments have been made to it but none so significant as the Forever GI Bill, which was passed within days of the Appeals Modernization Act of 2017 in what Lawrence calls “an all-time VBA week… two laws signed in the same week.” Among many expansions, the new GI Bill lifts the 15-year time limit to use education benefits for those who were discharged on or after Jan. 1, 2013.
Further changes in the GI Bill are inevitable, Lawrence says, as the economy and U.S. higher education evolve. “I would have to say that if the past is a predictor of the future, it’s changing all the time. People understand that we’re a knowledge society. That’s what keeps us where we are. Plus, it’s a powerful benefit. Think about the American dream. Get a good job; that’s the education. Own a home; that’s the home-loan guarantee. Those are inevitably wound together. We know the job market is going to continue to change, so people are going to need to be educated.”
Outreach has been a key objective in the Blue Water Navy expansion mission, Lawrence says. “We are working with folks like you all trying to find the way to communicate. As you can imagine, the veteran may have passed, so their family members – their kids, grandkids – could be eligible for survivor’s benefits if your loved one, primarily your father or grandfather, was exposed and had conditions related to that.”
VBA has emphatically been trying to contact applicants whose claims were denied because they lacked the “boots-on-the-ground” criteria that was imposed in 2002. “We have made a real conscientious effort to reach back,” Lawrence says. “We wrote almost 80,000 letters to everybody who we denied, who was in the blue water but previously denied because they weren’t covered, reminding them they can still re-apply. And we are going to try to go find their kids and wives, if they have passed.”
One of the hang-ups faced by applicants is not knowing if or when their ships were in the blue-water zone – no more than 12 miles from shore. “NARA – the National Archives – has all the ship logs from back in the day,” Lawrence explains. “It’s all pencil and paper. It’s 1967. At 8 o’clock in the morning, noontime and 8 o’clock in the evening, someone went out and figured out where (the ship) was – longitude and latitude – and they wrote notes during the day about what they did. So, we have those every day for every ship that was in the 12 miles, or in the Vietnam theater. We had to digitize those so that we could quickly scan and look you up. We could match your period of service with the ship and then put you in the blue water. That was the trick we knew we had to figure out. Once we do that, we know how to process Agent Orange claims because we have been doing it for the folks on land and in the brown water. So, now it was just a matter of, do they have the conditions? Were they there? What can we do for them?”
Digitization of the ship logs was one pro-active step that fits under Item No. 1 in VBA’s often-repeated triad of top priorities:
1. Provide veterans with the benefits they have earned in a manner that honors their service.
2. Ensure we are strong fiscal stewards of the money entrusted to us.
3. Foster a culture of collaboration.
“It’s really painful to hear ‘deny, deny until we die, die,’” Lawrence says. “I understand that’s the perception. But that’s absolutely not true. We’ll go even one further. The ship logs help us get to yes, but they don’t get you a no. If we don’t find you in the ship logs, we will then reach out to you and begin to figure out what other evidence is there. A picture of you and a buddy. A letter to somebody saying here’s where we were. We’re going to research hard… go back to DoD and find something to get you to yes.”
Item 3 on the priority list – “culture of collaboration” – has made the under secretary a frequent visitor of local American Legion posts around the country. “I learn something every time I go. I try to go to a post whenever I do a visit to a regional office or speak. They are generally very welcoming. Sometimes they will convene a group, and I will do a spontaneous roundtable. Sometimes I will just walk around and see the cool posts. I learn the history. It’s just really interesting to see the people who are doing it, transitioning from generation to generation. It’s really exciting and energizing.”
Lawrence adds that collaboration with service officers from the big veterans organizations is helping VBA in its pursuit of the best year ever. “A bunch of the VSOs (veterans service organizations) came to us about six months ago and said, ‘Hey, here are some suggestions I don’t think any of us thought about two years ago, because we hadn’t quite seen what would happen on Day 365. You might want to change some procedures. You might want to look at some forms.’ They were really good suggestions, and I think we are going to adopt all of them … tweaks to make the forms a little clearer… it’s been really good. I would say the feedback has been positive.”
That does not mean The American Legion and VBA see eye to eye on every detail, but at least they are listening to each other. “So, while we don’t always agree, it’s a good relationship. It will never be everybody agreeing. But you will see different perspectives and the value. Quite frankly, when we talk to your leaders, we understand all the conversations they are hearing. We are not hearing one anecdote. They are giving us information that is percolating up from this big machine.
“And then, by going to the posts, I realize I had forgotten what The American Legion really was. American Legion Baseball. American Legion Family. Auxiliary. It really is a much different organization than I thought about when I thought about veterans. Then I realized in my own life, yeah, I played American Legion Baseball. I remember all this stuff, put it all together, and realized it’s much more than just another organization.”
As for the culture of collaboration, Lawrence knows from a year of big deals how important it is to get everyone firing at the same targets. “When you think about appeals modernization in August ’16, everyone had collaborated. It seemed to work. Some of it was getting everyone to work together and get over whatever hard feelings there were before. Getting everyone to engage – all those who have veteran interests at heart – I hope it continues.”
Jeff Stoffer is director of The American Legion Media & Communications Division.