DOD benefit-check system hits Europe

Last month, in an effort to cut down on fraud, the Defense Department in Europe finished rolling out an upgrade of the systems it uses in the United States to track service records as well as health and other benefits for millions of service members worldwide.

DOD views the Realtime Automated Personnel Identification System (RAPIDS), an ID card-based application used to identify military personnel who are eligible for benefits, and the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS), a huge database of information on service members and their dependents, as key to cutting down on fraud and waste when handing out benefits such as health care, medicine or on-base shopping privileges. For example, the systems could prevent soldiers' ex-spouses from claiming benefits for which they are no longer eligible. Managers of the systems estimate that DOD avoids about $100 million in fraud and abuse every year through the use of DEERS and RAPIDS.

Military mission planners also use DEERS to sift rapidly through databases to determine how many of their troops are physically prepared for deployment, checking facts such as which troops have been vaccinated against the deadly anthrax disease, or to determine which troops have had the immunizations needed to work overseas.

The upgrade more tightly integrates RAPIDS with DEERS. DOD has given RAPIDS' software a "rules-based" approach, which means software, rather than a human, reads the ID card, accesses DEERS data, provides instant information on the patient's military status and determines what benefits the soldier or DOD employee is entitled to receive. The approach is one that eliminates human error, said Tim Dwyer, the DEERS program manager for contractor Electronic Data Systems Corp., which pulled in close to $26 million on the contract last year.

"We want to have a rules-based system that will make that determination in a standardized, accurate way every time, the same way," Dwyer said.

The redesign prevents DOD workers "from overriding the system and giving wrong ineligibilities to people," said Ken Scheflen, director of the Defense Manpower Data Center, which is overseeing the project.

The revamped DEERS and RAPIDS also move DOD from a mainframe environment toward a more nimble window-based client/server environment, making it easier to add new software or new categories of data to DEERS as Congress changes requirements for military benefits, Scheflen said. The systems process about 1 million transactions a day and hold records for about 17 million service members and their dependents.

DOD has put the new DEERS/RAPIDS combination in place at 394 of its 891 clinics, hospitals and benefits centers worldwide. Rollout of DEERS and the latest version of RAPIDS was completed last month at all 56 DOD sites in Europe. About 300 centers in the continental United States have been upgraded, as have about 40 centers in the Western Pacific.

The plan to integrate RAPIDS more tightly into DEERS was started in early 1995. About 18 months later, DOD was rolling out the new system. "If it's the right thing to do, let's go do it. Let's not study it to death," said Dwyer, explaining the DOD mentality behind revamping the systems.

SRA International Inc., which has designed software for the project, and Telos Corp., a provider of hardware, have worked closely with EDS to develop the new system, Dwyer said.

Lewis Lorton, executive director of the Healthcare Open Systems & Trials consortium, a group that promotes the development of information technology to improve health care, said the goals of systems such as DEERS and RAPIDS is to prevent fraud and abuse by making sure that resources are directed where they need to be directed. Wiser use of technology, therefore, is not the primary goal. Rather, the systems are a tool for achieving efficiency, Lorton said. "Those goals are not because of the technology," he said. "But the technology might enable them to get to those goals more easily."

By saving money through preventing waste and fraud, DOD can devote more money to improving health care and other services, Scheflen said. "You improve the services for those who are truly eligible."

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