VA Finishes Nationwide Rollout of its New Electronic Claims

Department expresses optimism as average time to complete claims hits new record of more than one year.

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) is finally going from paper to computers; and they are doing it ahead of schedule. Truly impressive!

The department announced this week that it has finished installing its urgently needed, much anticipated, and yet quite controversial and expensive Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) in all of its 56 Regional Offices.

Veterans have cause to be cautiously optimistic because VBA’s announcement has come as the time to process Veterans’ disability compensation claims has hit a distressingly ominous record of more than one year.

Although the system is now in place, Tommy Sowers, VA’s assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs, told reporters this week that “much work continues to be done as we roll out more features and train more users”.

Last week after visiting VBA offices in Manchester, N.H., VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said, “This is a big cross-over year for us. We have for decades sat astride rivers of paper.  Now we are in the process of turning off paper spigots and turning on electric ones.”

NextGov reports that in January the VBA farmed out 21% of the work on VBMS to the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic.

But are Veterans feeling the positive results? According to Nextgov reporter Bob Brewin,  VA had more than 850,000 claims pending as of June 10, 2013, with more than 560,000 backlogged more than 125 days.  That number, Brewin notes, has declined nearly 6 percent from the nearly 900,000 claims VA had pending in late March and is a drop of nearly 11 percent from the more than 630,000 claims stuck in processing in excess of 125 days at the end of March.

VA spokesman Randy Noller told The Daily Beast’s Jamie Reno earlier this year the department still believes it can live up to Shinseki’s pledge to eliminate the disability claims backlog by 2015, reduce the processing time on all claims to 125 days or less, and cut the error rate on these claims to 2 percent.

A harshly worded report from the VA’s Office of the Inspector General, however, seems to indicate otherwise.  The report (PDF)  concluded skeptically that given the slow and complex nature of this transition from paper to computers the VA will “continue to face challenges in meeting its goal of eliminating the backlog of disability claims” by the 2015 deadline.

In related news, the 2014 Defense Authorization Bill passed by the House last week includes an amendment from Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) directing the Pentagon to provide VA with veterans’ service records in an efficient electronic format.

Military delays in responding to VBA records requests, now averaging about 175 days, often further extend veterans’ already long waiting periods, now averaging 365.6 days (more than one year) nationwide for VBA to complete a claim.

The amendment codifies plans by the Department of Defense (DOD) to use a bulk scanning system for paper medical files and requires the DOD to provide VA with service members’ certified, complete and electronic records within 90 days of military discharge or release.

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