Monday of this week the Washington Post featured an article on the Department of Veterans Affairs “Veterans First” Contracting Program. The article focused on the VA’s verification process and how that process has led to the rejection of 70% of veterans listed in the VA’s Vendor Information Pages. This blog topic provides a summary of the history and the current issues regarding VA verification.
The Veterans Benefits, Health Care and Information Technology Act of 2006 created the Veterans First Contacting program which provided the VA with the authority to provide its own contracting assistance to Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSBs) and direct contracting assistance to Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (VOSBs) in addition to that provided by SBA to SDVOSBs. Like the name implies, under the Veterans First Contracting Program the VA must consider acquisition strategies that give priority to SDVOSBs first and then to VOSBs before pursuing other strategies benefitting 8(a) contractors, women-owned small businesses and HUBZone small businesses. The Veterans Benefits Act of 2006 required the VA’s Center for Veterans Enterprise (CVE) to verify ownership and control of SDVOSBs and VOSBs participating in the Veterans First Contracting Program through the VetBiz.gov Vendor Information Pages (VIP) database. In order to be identified in VIP and to participating in the program, a company typically self-certified as to its veteran-owned status until VA was able to review its verification application and officially verify the company’s status.
In October 2010, President Obama signed the Veterans Benefits Act of 2010. The law expanded and accelerated the VA’s obligations with regard to the verification of SDVOSBs and VOSBs. Under the act, by December 31, 2011, all small businesses seeking to participate in VA’s Veterans First Contracting Program must be verified by VA and must appear in the VIP database. Effective October 13, 2010, The act required the VA to notify all businesses then identified in the VIP database but not yet verified that they had no later than 90 days after they received the VA’s notification to submit business documents to VA establishing that their businesses were owned and controlled by a veteran or service-disabled veteran. According to the VA, 13,000 letters were sent regarding the need to submit verification documents.
March 14, 2011 was the date by which all verification applications had to be submitted to VA for those businesses that previously had been identified in the VIP database but had not yet been verified. On March 15, VA removed all businesses listed in the database that did not submit a verification package by the March 14, 2011 deadline. In attempting to meet this target deadline, the VA prioritized the applications it reviewed for verification. The first priority was any small businesses that had been identified as an apparent successful offeror in a VA acquisition; in this instance, if the business was not yet verified, VA would “jump” the business to the head of the line for verification under a “Fast Track” verification process. Under this process, VA promised to review and determine the status of the apparent successful offeror’s verification application within 21 days. After the “apparent successful offerors’ applications are reviewed, the VA then first reviewed applications by businesses who had current contracts with the VA followed by those businesses that were not identified for a contract award and did not have current business but were identified in the VIP database in October 2010 and had submitted an application within the 90 day deadline noted above.
Many veteran-owned businesses have complained about the VA’s delay in reviewing verification applications and the fact that VA has jumped certain applications to the head of the queue. The VA originally set a target deadline of July 31, 2010 for completion of verification applications – a deadline which the agency did not meet. However, at the Veterans Conference in New Orleans and then again at the American Legion annual convention at the end of August, Tom Leney, Director of the VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, stated that at that time there were only six verification applications left for the VA to review. Thus, the issue of “fast tracking” certain applicants should not be a concern going forward. According to the VA, new verification applications should only take 90 days to review.