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Knight Ridder Gets It Right Again

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Posted on Fri, Dec 30,2005

VA help lines found to regularly provide wrong information


Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - A veteran who turns to the Department of Veterans Affairs for

information about benefits might want to get a second opinion.

According to the VA's own data, people who call the agency's regional

offices for help and advice are more likely to receive completely wrong

answers than completely right ones.

To see how well its employees answer typical questions from the public, VA

benefits experts in 2004 called each of the agency's U.S. regional offices,

which process veterans' disability claims. The so-called mystery callers,

saying they were relatives or friends of veterans inquiring about possible

benefits, made a total of 1,089 calls. Almost half the time they got answers

that the VA said were either completely incorrect or minimally correct.

According to an internal VA memo on the mystery-caller program that's buried

deep in the department's 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 were "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's response, according to the VA 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


VA officials acknowledge that the agency needs to do better. Daniel Cooper,

the department's top benefits official, said in a memo to the VA regional

offices that the results of the mystery-caller program "are below

expectations and are disappointing to the organization. ... We must be able

to provide prompt service and give correct answers with the courtesy and

professionalism that our customers deserve."

This week, VA officials said they'd taken steps since 2004 to improve their

performance, among other things setting up a small pilot program to monitor

employees silently as they answered veterans' questions.

While the VA said the pilot program improved performance, thus far it's been

used in only four out of 57 regional offices. Other offices are scheduled to

begin the silent monitoring by the end of fiscal 2006.

Beyond that, the VA said it was working to improve its 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.

Veterans across the country said their experience with VA call centers

suggested that there was still significant room for improvement.

"The VA needs a change of attitude," said William B. Jones, a veteran from

Greenville, S.C., who's been butting heads with the agency for several

years. Jones, a semiretired physician, said he'd received bad medical

information and repeatedly had gotten the runaround in his attempt to get

compensation for ailments that he said were linked to his military service.

"I often get no answer at all," said Jones. "I call their 1-800 numbers and

generally you get a computer and talk to no one. I've had that not once but

probably a dozen times. When you do talk to somebody, you get frustrated

because you can't really find out if the case is proceeding. They say they

are working on it, but they don't give any details."

Responding to Jones' complaints, the VA said it "takes very seriously any

frustrations veterans may experience when attempting to contact us. ... VA

continues to work on ways to provide better access and quality customer


The mystery callers also judged the courtesy, willingness to help and

promptness of the people who answered the VA's phones. They found that many

VA offices were helpful and friendly - even as they provided bum


Bum information, however, is the biggest problem.

One mystery caller, for example, asked about benefits after a Vietnam

veteran died of lung cancer. Many conditions have been linked to the

herbicide Agent Orange, which was widely used in Vietnam. But the VA

regional office said lung cancer was "not one of the conditions related to

Agent Orange."

According to the VA's evaluation, that answer was "completely incorrect

(wrong information given - lung cancer is one of the conditions related to

Agent Orange.)"

Another mystery caller asked about a grandfather who'd been injured in the

Korean War. "When he dies, is he eligible for burial in Arlington National

Cemetery?" the caller asked.

Response: "I can't answer for Arlington. You can call your congressmen. They

love doing those kinds of things for their constituents."

The VA's evaluation: "Completely incorrect. ... Unprofessional; unwilling to


Another mystery caller asked whether her husband could get help from the VA

for a back problem he'd had for years. "I don't know," the VA regional

office said. "He just has to file a claim."

The evaluator found that the response was completely incorrect because it

didn't give an answer, and the VA official was "discourteous" and "unwilling

to help."

To read the VA survey online, go to



When callers posing as veterans' friends or family members called the

Department of Veterans Affairs to ask questions about benefits, they often

got incorrect and/or rude responses. Some examples from a VA survey, along

with VA experts' evaluations of the responses:

CALLER: "My son served in Vietnam, and he just died of lung cancer. I have

custody of his 10-year-old daughter. Are there any benefits for my


RESPONSE: "What is your son's Social Security number?"

CALLER: "I don't have it."

RESPONSE: "Well, I can't help you if you don't give me any information. ...

What is your monthly income?"

CALLER: "About $200 a week."

RESPONSE: "Well, that sounds like it is awful high, and you wouldn't be


VA EVALUATION: "Completely incorrect," because benefits might be available

for such a child. The VA worker was also "very discouraging" and "didn't

express empathy in recent loss of son."

CALLER: "My husband just started going to college using the Voc-Rehab

program, and I was just wondering how long he has to use this program."

RESPONSE: "I don't know. He needs to ask his vocational rehabilitation

counselor the next time he talks with him."

VA EVALUATION: "Completely incorrect," because it didn't answer the

question. Also was "unprofessional and discourteous."

CALLER: "My brother is being discharged in two weeks from the Marine Corps.

Are there any veterans' preferences for state or federal jobs?"

RESPONSE: "No preference. Everyone is a veteran. With government, you get

points if you're a veteran. For a disabled veteran, there's points. Nothing

out of the ordinary."

EVALUATION: "Completely incorrect," because it gave the wrong information.

Also: "tone discourteous; unwilling to help."

CALLER: "My dad was killed in a training accident while on active duty just

before Desert Storm. Does the VA offer any benefits for me to go to


RESPONSE: "Was your mother in receipt of benefits from the VA? ... Did your

father die on active duty? ... Well, if your mother was in receipt of

benefits, you would be eligible. But you're telling me that your mother was

not in receipt, so you are not entitled."

EVALUATION: "Completely incorrect" because the child would be entitled if

his father had died on active duty. Also: "tone was discourteous."

Source: VA memo on "2004 Mystery Caller" program. The memo is available

online at www.warms.vba.va.gov/admin20/letters/vba04_42.doc

Significant Findings

The following is the significant data from the 2002 and the 2004 studies on

responses to general benefits questions:

Results 2002


Completely Correct 5%


Mostly Correct 10%


Partially Correct 29%


Minimally Correct 34%


Completely Incorrect 22%


The following is the significant data from the 2002 and the 2004 studies

showing how Veterans Services Representatives (VSRs) were rated on customer



Willingness Prompt

Professionalism to Help


2002 2004

2002 2004 2002 2004

Excellent 40% 26% 37%

26% 39% 70%

Very Good 41% 43% 39%

36% 37% 17%

Good 15% 21% 16%

16% 17% 10%

Fair 2% 9%

4% 17% 4% 2%

Poor 1% 1%

3% 5% 2% 1%

Very Poor 1% 0% 1%

.5% 1% .2%


From: Robert White [mailto:etihwr2@cavtel.net]

Sent: Friday, December 30, 2005 10:20 PM

To: Undisclosed-Recipient:;

Subject: Veterans Disability

Google Alert for: Veterans Disability

VA <http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/politics/13518354.htm>

help lines found to regularly provide wrong information

San Jose Mercury News - CA, USA

... answer typical questions from the public, VA benefits experts in 2004

called each of the agency's US regional offices, which process veterans'

disability claims ...


NStory/National/> Veterans may wait years for hard-fought compensation

Globe and Mail - Canada

... He noted that the veterans were those who were injured in the service of

... by the government, incapable of managing their money as a result of

their disability. ...



117.htm> tallying Iraq casualties makes a stir in Duluth

San Jose Mercury News - CA, USA

... four dozen surgeries, he said, and supports himself with his disability

pension. ... hoping to steer media attention over the sign toward the

problems of veterans. ...

[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

"Keep on, Keepin' on"

Dan Cedusky, Champaign IL "Colonel Dan"

See my web site at:


Change your email address when needed by signing in at


Forward to other veterans, tell them to Sign up at:


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As long as I can remember, the St. Louis RO has been recording my calls.

They are not bashful either.

They tell me I'm being recorded every time I call.

I don't think they have ever given me the wrong information because they don't give me any information.


Those that need help the most are the ones least likely to receive help from the VA.

It's up to us to help each other.

sledge twkelly@hotmail.com

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