Scope of the Position:

The Under Secretary for Benefits ensures the successful delivery of non-medical programs such as disability compensation; pension and fiduciary; education; home loan guaranty; life insurance; vocational rehabilitation and employment; and transition, employment, and economic impact. There are VBA facilities in every state, in addition to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The Under Secretary is also responsible for overseeing a large staff of approximately 20,000 personnel.

Illustrative Management Challenges:

Managing Regional Offices

A significant management challenge facing the Under Secretary for Benefits is management of the regional offices across the nation. In 2015, controversy arose after two Regional Directors created position vacancies and volunteered to fill them in an attempt to garner additional wages.1 These efforts were an attempt to bypass a recent pay freeze and ultimately resulted in a loss of thousands of dollars for the Department. Additionally, due to an administrative error the Agency was forced to restart the investigations process in December 2015.2 Prior to the hiring controversy, VA officials in other regional offices were scrutinized for changing the dates of disability claims on various cases to create the perception that the Department was making progress on eliminating a backlog.3 According to an Inspector General report, staff at the "facility told the IG they were following guidance from the department's Veterans Benefits Administration." In an email exchange between the VA Deputy Secretary and Inspector General, the former acknowledged a fundamental sense of disconnect between what the VBA considers important and what the Inspector General teams audit."4

Improper Payments

Faulty electronic systems, poor training, and poor management led to nearly $110 million in payments being withheld from deserving veterans. A report by the VA Inspector General found that as of March 2015, approximately 186,000 veterans were housebound due to injury or illness, and 33,400 of them experienced errors in their payments.5 Additionally, veterans not designated as housebound received over $44 million intended for housebound veterans. In response to this report, the VBA has promised to review its IT systems supposedly responsible for these errors, and it pledged to review the process for issuing payments to housebound veterans.

     Sources:

      1Watchdog: VA Reassigned Senior Officials to Sidestep Pay Freeze; govexec.com; September 28, 2015.
      2Punishment for VA Senior Executives Delayed Because of 'Administrative Error'; govexec.com; December 3, 2015.
      3Watchdog Finds Data Manipulation of Disability Claims at Arkansas Facility; govexec.com; February 27, 2015.
      4www.govexec.com/media/gbc/docs/pdfs_edit/022715kl1.pdf
      5VA Improperly Withheld Millions of Dollars in Benefits; taskandpurpose.com; October 2, 2016.      

Under Secretaries for Benefits:

The vast majority of recent Under Secretaries for Benefits have come from either within the VBA/VA itself or from a long career in the military, often in a leadership role. Presumably, the high concentration of career VA officials in this position is reflective of the complexity of this organization and the President's desire to appoint someone intimately familiar with the organization and veterans community.

Current Incumbent:

Thomas Murphy (Acting) (2016-Present): Murphy's previous positions in the VA included Acting Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits, Director of Compensation Services, and Director of the San Juan Regional Office. He previously held a senior=level executive position with the Home Depot and other private companies. Murphy served in the military for 15 years.

Previous Under Secretaries:

Danny Pummill (Acting) (2015-2016): Pummill's previous positions consisted of Principal Deputy Under Secretary of the VBA, Director of the DoD's VBA Program Office, Deputy Director of Compensation and Pension of the VBA, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Health and Medical Oversight. He holds a BS in law enforcement, a master's degree in military arts and sciences, and a master's degree in national security strategy.

Allison A. Hickey (2011-2015): Hickey is currently serving as the CEO of All In Solutions. Hickey's previous positions included Director & Program Manager for Accenture, Assistant Deputy Director/Brigadier General at the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Strategic Planning Headquarters, Division Chief of USAF Future Concepts and Transformation Division, and Director of Strategic Initiatives at the National Guard Bureau.

Michael Walcoff (Acting) (2010-2011): Walcoff is currently serving as a Senior Advisor with Deloitte Consulting. Walcoff's previous positions included Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits and Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations for the VA, Director of multiple VBA regional offices, and Deputy Area Director. He received his JD from Temple University's School of Law.

Patrick W. Dunne (2008-2009): Dunne is currently serving as the COO for the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington (D.C.). Dunne's previous positions consist of President of Dunne & Associates, Associate Director for the Center for Infrastructure Protection and Homeland Security at the George Mason School of Law, Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and President of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. Dunne retired from the U.S. Navy as Rear Admiral after 37 years in uniform.

Daniel L. Cooper (2002-2008): Prior to his appointment as Under Secretary, Cooper held many positions in the Navy for 37 years, including Commander of the U.S. Atlantic Submarine Fleet, Comptroller of Naval Sea Systems Command, and Director of Navy Program Planning. He has also served on the corporate boards of groups like the United Services Automobile Association (USAA), Navy Federal Credit Union (NFCU), and the Philadelphia Electric Co. (PECO).

Joseph Thompson (1997-2001): Thompson most recently served as a project manager for the National Academy of Public Administration. Preceding his appointment as Under Secretary, he served as the Assistant Director for VA's Regional Office and Insurance Center in Philadelphia and spent several years as the Director of the VA Regional Office in New York. He began his career with the VA as a claims examiner in 1975.

Raymond J. Vogel (1993-1996): Vogel most recently served as the President of R.J. Vogel and Associates. Prior to his tenure as Under Secretary, Vogel served as Director of VA Medical Centers in Bay Pines, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina. Vogel also worked as the Director of the VBA Regional Office and Insurance Centers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in Portland, Oregon. He holds an MS in government administration from George Washington University.

Additional Resources:

http://www.va.gov/opa/bios/bio_pummill.asp 
http://www.politicalappointeeproject.org/profile/allison-hickey 
http://capitolwords.org/date/2001/12/11/E2253_retirement-of-joseph-thompson/