Tuesday, March 07, 2006

VA Help Line Not Much Help!

VA help line should live up to its name.

The results from the “mystery caller” program at the Department of Veterans Affairs were deplorable. Twenty-two percent of the answers received by callers to the help line at the agency’s regional offices were completely incorrect.

In fact, most of the answers were either wrong or incomplete. Twenty-three percent of the answers were minimally correct. Twenty percent were partially correct. Sixteen percent were mostly correct.

Only 19 percent of the answers were completely correct.

VA benefit experts made 1,089 mystery calls in 2004 to regional offices around the country. Six of the calls went to the VA office in Lincoln; the report did not break down results from individual offices. (A report on the survey can be found online at www.warms.vba.va.gov//admin20//letters//

vba04_42.doc.)

Not only did callers get bad information, they were treated rudely.

One mystery caller asked, “My father served in Vietnam in 1961 and 1962. Is there a way he can find out if he was exposed to Agent Orange?”

Response: “He should know if they were spreading that chemical out then. He would be the only one to know. OK (hung up laughing).”

The mystery caller rated that answer as “Completely incorrect (gave no information) Rude and unprofessional.”

The Veterans Administration does deserve credit for doing the survey to find out what kind of service it was providing.

But it’s disconcerting that the findings from its 2004 survey improved so little from a similar survey in 2002. The proportion of completely incorrect answers in the two surveys was unchanged at 22 percent. The biggest improvement came in the percentage of completely correct answers, which jumped from 5 percent to 19 percent.

The VA says it has taken steps to improve performance, including more training and use of role-playing.

But the agency has a long way to go. Incorrect information is worse than no information at all. Veterans have a right to expect better service. So do all the taxpayers who pay the salaries of the people who staff the help line.

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