Veterans Benefits Administration

Clarity of Letters to Claimants Needs to Be Improved Gao ID: GAO-02-395 April 23, 2002

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) provided $23 billion in monthly cash benefits to 3.2 million disabled veterans and their families through its compensation and pension program in fiscal year 2001. In the same year, VBA mailed 1.2 million "notification" letters to veterans and their families, informing them of VBA's decisions on compensation or pension benefits claims filed. VBA also sent 1.2 million "development" letters in fiscal year 2001 requesting information in order to make a decision on claims. VBA found in 1995 that its notification and development letters failed to communicate adequately, and launched an initiative, called Reader-Focused Writing, to improve its written communications. In its letters, VBA clearly explained some, but not all, of the key aspects that claimants needed to understand. Beyond the lack of clarity in these letters, various writing deficiencies, such as sequencing and formatting problems, reduced the value of VBA's letters. First, in many of its rating decision documents and development letters, VBA attempts to achieve more than one objective and, in doing so, compromises clarity for the reader. Second, although VBA's central office and some regional offices have developed boilerplate paragraphs for letters and their attachments to increase consistency and quality, some contain writing deficiencies. Third, some letters contain editorial mistakes and boilerplate language not adapted to the claimant's specific situation. Finally, VBA does not systematically evaluate the clarity of its letters, identify writing deficiencies, and provide timely feedback to help correct problems. As a result, VBA lacks an organized process for continuously improving the clarity of its letters.


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