Scott Gould isn’t worried about being the fourth high-ranking political appointee to be leaving the Veterans Affairs Department in the last four months.
No, the deputy secretary, whose last day is today, said it’s not a surprise that so many long-time officials recently left the department. The list includes Roger Baker, the former assistant secretary for information and Technology and chief information officer; Peter Levin, the chief technology officer; and John Gingrich, the chief of staff.
“We have 13 presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed positions in VA. It’s a very small number of folks. We held on to 12 of 13 of those individuals for almost four years,” he said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. “It’s an unheard of level of continuity and I credit it to the inspirational leadership of [VA Secretary] Rick Shinseki. We held the team together. Everybody knew when we came on board we were committing to a four-year tour. We did it. Now those folks are reaching the end of that commitment. We all had our time and our commitment, and now a new wave of talented and committed people will come in under Secretary Shinseki’s leadership.” Gould, who acted as the department’s chief operating officer, said he plans to go back to the private sector. He said first he will go fly fishing and relax a little, and then begin the job search in earnest. Gould previously worked for IBM as the vice president for public sector strategy and as a naval intelligence officer.
“His unwavering leadership and dedication to veterans and their families has strengthened our ability to carry out VA’s mission — providing veterans the healthcare and benefits they have earned,” Shinseki said in a statement when Gould announced his decision to leave April 29. “A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Scott has fought to improve the lives of his fellow veterans, and we’ve worked together to make long-term, transformational changes to the department. As the chief operating officer of the federal government’s second largest department, Scott has been vital to the progress we’ve made on our top three priorities: increasing access to VA care and services, eliminating the compensation claims backlog, and ending veterans’ homelessness. While we have more work to do, Scott’s contributions have been immense.”
Gould pointed to several improvements at VA during his tenure.
“The big thing we’ve done is increased access to health care for veterans. We’ve got another 800,000 veterans getting health care services from VA now,” he said. “We’ve also increased access to college education with almost 1 million students in school, participating in what I regard the next greatest generation. Then, of course, on the homeless side, we’ve reduced homelessness by 17 percent.”
The one area under Gould’s leadership that VA has taken the biggest beatings on is the backlog of disability claims by veterans.
Veterans groups and lawmakers recently wrote letters to President Barack Obama asking him to personally get involved as the number of cases increased. The number of claims considered backlogged, pending more than 125 days, has jumped to 600,000 from 180,000 over the past 3 1/2 years.
Gould said he understands the frustration and believes VA is making good progress.
“We’ve deployed a new electronic veterans benefit management systems across 42 of 56 locations across the country,” Gould said. “We put in a new phone system, moved the entire organization to a new lane based system with new supporting business processes, improved quality from 83 percent over  percent on our way to 98 percent and no claim processed in more than 125 days. Those are all clear positives and clear wins.”
The Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) hasn’t been without its challenges either. A February 2013 VA inspector general report found that as of September 2012 VBMS has experienced performance issues, and it was unclear whether the system was improving VA’s accuracy in processing claims to the 98 percent goal.
Backlog is of their own creation
VA has processed more claims over the last four years than ever before, 4.1 million.
But Gould said more than 4.6 million claims came in during that period and that’s what created the backlog.
“It happened because we expanded access to benefits to our veterans,” he said. “Three great examples of that are Agent Orange, where Vietnam Veterans waited 50 years to get this resolved. We also made it easier for people to prove that they had post-traumatic stress disorder, and we also addressed Gulf War illnesses. The combination of those added another 600,000 claims into the system. The backlog is our own creation. We admit that, and we think for the best and highest reasons. We are not satisfied with the fact that it is there and we are working very assiduously to get it corrected.”
VA announced earlier this week it would approve overtime for employees through the end of the year to help reduce the backlog.
“We are looking at all possible actions to dramatically draw down the backlog. We have to focus on people, put them to work longer; in the areas of process, figuring out how to simplify and speed the claims process; and in the area of technology, the VBMS will be a paperless system,” Gould said. “The big challenge is we have claims whose average size is 500 pieces of paper. That is an extraordinary amount of paper to move into digital form. For some period, we will be managing both claims in electronic form and paper form and that’s adding to the complexity.”
Gould said VA also is seeing progress on the initiative started in April to tackle the oldest claims first. He said the goal is to eliminate all claims that are one- year or older by Oct. 15.
Congress continues to apply pressure to VA. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) Thursday introduced the Quicker Benefits Delivery Act, a bill aimed at tackling the VA’s benefit-claims backlog.
Among the things the bill would do is let veterans see local doctors to get their initial diagnosis and require VA to award initial benefits based on that determination.
Improved labor-management relations
Outside of the services to veterans, Gould said the relationship between labor and management is strong.
Gould has been one of the more active deputy secretaries on the National Council on Federal-Labor Management Relations. VA has been out in front of holding pre- decisional bargaining sessions with its unions.
“It’s really involving people collaboratively in the problem-solving process early on. I think it works. We’ve certainly got a lot more we can do to improve in terms of training and leadership in this area,” he said. “But fundamentally, the idea that having both parties sit down, work through tough issues together, and focus on improving the mission, the work environment for all employees and improving the labor-management relations makes a lot of sense.”
Gould said pre-decisional involvement helped reduce the time it took to bargain changes to the Veterans Benefits Administration’s processes to three days. He said typically this type of negotiations could take six-to-nine months.
“This is a great example of how you can move things forward more quickly when you’re having a collaborative, engaged relationship with labor,” he said.