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Is VA’s New Computerized Claims System Ready?

Problems Persist for VA’s $491 Million VBMS.  

Depending on who describes the problem, the new, highly-touted computerized claim processing system purchased by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has either minor past glitches or major current breakdowns.

On Wednesday, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC) held a timely hearing titled “VA Claims System: Review of VA’s Transformational Progress.”  While the hearing focused on VA’s errors processing claims, Senators asked VA leaders about recent reports that the agency’s new computer system is failing Veterans, including “spontaneous” shutdowns.

VA’s new paperless claims processing system, the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), which cost $491 million, is frustrating examiners with “spontaneous” system shutdowns, Sondra McCauley, VA’s assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, told House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC) on December 4.

In questions a week later at a Senate hearing on December 11, VA insisted the problems were all in the past.  As Nextgov reported after the SVAC hearing, Allison Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, called the charges “dated.”

But are they?

Nextgov’s Bob Brewin reported on December 5 how McCauley testified that 25 staff members in the Houston, Newark and Milwaukee VA Regional Offices told VA’s Inspector General (IG) that the VBMS continues facing latency problems that slow the downloading of medical documents.  The reports of serious, current problems within VBMS continued for nearly one year:

* Brewin reported back in January 2013 that slow VBMS response times make it difficult for VA claims examiners to perform simple tasks on Veteran claims files, such as search, update, save or retrieve.

* Jamie Reno at The Daily Beast reported back in February of this year how VBMS had no implementation plan and was riddled with problems, including disorganized electronic claims folders and improper management of hard-copy claims.

VA’s OIG told the HVAC that VBMS mislabeled electronic evidence in claims files and mixed up evidence in the file of one veteran with that of another veteran.  Such malfunctions, she said, force users to rely on older systems to process claims.

In good news for Veterans, VA completed installation of VBMS in all 56 VBA regional offices in June.  But McCauley said VBA has only one VBMS pilot site, Newark, New Jersey, with “the capability to process claims from initial application through review, rating, award, to benefits delivery.”

An official with the Paralyzed Veterans of America told the recent House hearing that VBMS is ill-suited to handle complex claims – those involving multiple medical conditions – due to the limitations of its design.

Sherman Gillums Jr., associate executive director for Veterans Benefits at the PVA, told the House hearing that VBMS is a rules-based system that lacks the “human interaction to fully understand the circumstances of a specific injury.”

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