Veterans

Changes to VA benefits operations forced by coronavirus could outlast the pandemic

In a surprising twist, the forced closure of hundreds of Veterans Affairs benefits offices because of the coronavirus outbreak may actually be helping officials reach more veterans.

“(Since the closings) we’ve done tele-town halls for 12 states so far, and reached more than 350,000 veterans,” said VA Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence in an interview with Military Times this week.

“I talk for a little bit and then take questions. They’re good to hear, keep me apprised of what our veterans are talking about and what may have gone wrong so we can fix it.

“Ironically, they really have enabled me to touch a group of folks who aren’t on social media, print media, the places we usually go. It seems like we’re reaching an older generation of veterans, and telephone is the way they engage.”

Lawrence, who oversees the distribution of disability, education and other benefits to more than 7 million veterans and family members, said the success of the new telephone town halls have been a silver lining in the ongoing pandemic, which has forced about 97 percent of the Veterans Benefits Administration to work from home.

Department officials have seen an increase in worker productivity since that move, but Lawrence said he isn’t convinced that indicates a permanent change to off-site work would produce more efficiency.

“We’re seeing our employees’ availability and utilization at a higher percentage than usual, but that could be because they have no real (recreation) alternatives right now, and no one can go anywhere on vacation,” he said. “And they know our mission still matters, so these have been some of our more productive times.”

Lawrence said his staff has begun discussing whether they’ll keep using more remote-working options in the future, but dismissed the chances of large-scale changes away from brick-and-mortar benefits offices.

“Our veterans still need to come in there for some questions,” he said. “And for a lot of veterans, social isolation isn’t a good thing. So we want to be there.”

But for now, the remote work operations remain the norm. VA officials have discussed opening more hospital work areas and non-medical space in coming weeks, but those decisions will depend on how local and national infection rates proceed.

As a result, deadlines for some veterans benefits applications have been extended, and department officials have waived some in-person exams on those applications. The department’s benefit’s hotline — 1-800-827-1000 — is fielding about 25,000 calls a day.

“We invested in our telework capabilities several years ago, so a lot of the recent changes are working out well for us,” Lawrence said.

And he promised that the telephone town halls will stay in place even after state lockdowns are lifted. One is scheduled for Oklahoma residents tonight, and four others in the next two weeks.

Lawrence said even though the open question lines from veterans invites some “uncertainty,” he has been excited with the response, especially among folks who tell him they don’t usually reach out to VA.

“The secretary has made it an emphasis to get those hard-to-reach veterans,” he said. “This has really turned out well in that sense.

“I’ve already started asking my staff how we keep this going in the future.”

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