Senate to VA: Answer the phone

Veterans are peeved at the slow response, lack of information from toll-free benefits line.

Frustrated lawmakers bashed the Veterans Affairs Department at a Senate hearing Wednesday for not handling the most basic service task -- answering the phone when veterans seek information from the department's National Call Center.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., told VA Secretary Eric Shinseki that often when his constituents contact the NCC "the phone rings . . . [but] no one is there. I had high hopes for the National Call Center, but it is not working well." If veterans do manage to connect with someone, that individual often lacks the right information, Johanns said.

The VA National Call Center (800-827-1000) is supposed to serve as a clearinghouse for information about a range of veterans benefits -- compensation and pensions, education, vocational rehabilitation, employment, home loans, and insurance. Johanns told Shinseki that in his view, VA created an expectation of service that it has not fulfilled.

Shinseki said he routinely phones the National Call Center to check on it, and at times has been disappointed with the response. He told Johanns that the NCC's performance has improved over the past six months thanks to development of the Veterans Relationship Management Program, including a new call queue system designed to reduce wait times.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said his staff routinely tests the toll-free number, and as of Feb. 24 could not get an answer. When the National Call Center does answer, his staff gets "an inadequate response," he said. He told Shinseki that VA needs to improve call center operations because "customer service is the name of the game."

VA invested $143.8 million in the Veterans Relationship Management Program in 2011, budgeted $108 million for it this year and requested a $111 million budget for it in 2013. Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, told the hearing that VRM offers tools designed to eliminate queue frustration and provide call center agents with what she called a unified desktop on a computer screen to access the information they need to field questions.

VRM includes a virtual hold feature that allows veterans to hang up, but still keep their place in the queue, with a call-back activated when it's their turn to talk to an NCC staffer. She said VRM also includes a feature that allows veterans placed on hold to schedule a call-back time at their convenience.

The unified desktop, Hickey said, integrates information from 13 VA benefit databases on one server and screen, providing call center agents with easy access to benefits information.

Johanns praised the VA eBenefits portal and website, which allows veterans to manage their benefits online, and urged an expansion of the system "as it pays real dividends." Hickey said surveys that VA has conducted show that "73 percent of veterans want to meet us online."

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