McCoy, the VBA official, said she heard from employees in the field that they felt the performance standards were not fair. “Things are changing very quickly, and we’re struggling a little bit to keep up with the pace of change as we update our performance standards,” she said.
A processor must gather medical and military records for each disability and assign disability ratings based on the severity of injury, which then determines the monthly check from the government.
The VA paid $44.3 billion in disability benefits and $5.5 billion to survivors of veterans with a service-connected disability, according to its annual benefits report for fiscal 2012. A veteran who is rated 10 percent disabled receives a standard $129 per month.
Claims for multiple injuries require significant time to gather documentation. Other claims, including for post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or traumatic brain injury, can require just as much effort because they can be more difficult to prove than physical injuries.
In April 2010, the VA stopped giving its employees performance credit for “supplemental development,” which included tasks such as calling and sending follow-up letters to veterans and follow-up requests for military documents and medical records.
The change was meant to encourage processors to finish claims. But a complex disability claim could take all day, while a claim for one or two injuries could be completed much faster, said David G. Bump, a national representative of the AFGE and former claims processor at the Milwaukee regional office.
“I think after a couple of years of seeing things piling up, they realized that that didn’t work,” said Bump, a member of the bargaining committee that has met three times with the VBA in 10 months to discuss changing the standards.
Claims workers can be fired or demoted for not meeting standards in Automated Standardized Performance Elements Nationwide, or ASPEN, the VA’s system of awarding a specific number of points daily for each task an employee performs.
Performance evaluations for all claims workers include the elements of “productivity,” “quality” and “customer service.” While “quality” is measured by a random sampling of an employee’s claims and “customer service” is measured by the number of complaints against the employee, “productivity” is judged by ASPEN points, the average work credits the employee must earn per day.
ASPEN points could translate into financial awards at the end of each year if a worker earns an “excellent” or “outstanding” performance.
But News21 found that regional office management gave bonuses to some employees even as their claims backlogs grew. During 2012, Office of Personnel Management records show some of the most troubled offices gave their employees the most extra pay.