VA Phones Dispense Questionable Answers

Monday, January 9, 2006

A veteran who turns to the Department of Veterans Affairs for information about benefits might want a second opinion.

According to VA data, people who call the department's regional offices for help and advice are more likely to receive completely wrong answers than completely right ones.

To see how well department employees answer typical questions from the public, VA benefits experts in 2004 called each of the 57 regional offices, which process disability claims. The mystery callers, saying they were relatives or friends of veterans inquiring about possible benefits, made 1,089 calls. Almost half the time they got answers that the department said were either completely incorrect or minimally correct.

According to an internal memo on the mystery-caller program that is buried deep in the VA Web site, 22 percent of the answers the callers got were "completely incorrect," 23 percent were "minimally correct" and 20 percent were "partially correct." Nineteen percent of the answers were "completely correct," and 16 percent "mostly correct."

The program also found that some VA workers were dismissive of some callers and unhelpful or rude to others.

One caller, for example, said: "My father served in Vietnam in 1961 and 1962. Is there a way he can find out if he was exposed to Agent Orange?" The VA response, according to the memo: "He should know if they were spreading that chemical out then. He would be the only one to know. OK (hung up laughing)."

The memo said the response was "completely incorrect" because it gave no information -- and also was "rude and unprofessional."

The 2004 survey found improvements in some categories compared with a similar study with identical questions in 2002. Timeliness improved, but scores on "willingness to help" and "courtesy/professionalism" dropped. VA workers also used "too much jargon," confusing to many veterans, the memo said.

Officials acknowledge that the department needs to do better. Daniel L. Cooper, undersecretary for benefits, wrote the regional offices that the results of the mystery-caller program "are below expectations and are disappointing to the organization" and added: "We must be able to provide prompt service and give correct answers with the courtesy and professionalism that our customers deserve."

VA officials said last week that they have taken steps since 2004 to improve performance, among other things setting up a pilot program in four of the 57 regional offices to monitor employees silently as they answered veterans' questions. Other offices are scheduled to begin the silent monitoring by the end of fiscal 2006.

The department said it also is working to improve service by boosting training and using role-playing exercises for some phone calls with the public. Other quality-improvement programs are expected to be put into place in 2006 and 2007.

To read the VA survey online, go to http://www.warms.vba.va.gov/admin20/letters/vba04_42.doc .

-- Knight Ridder

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