New supply line for vets

Unless he fought in a conflict on the scale of the Battle of the Bulge or the Persian Gulf War, a veteran may have a hard time proving he was injured in the line of duty and entitled to benefits.

In some cases, when a veteran wasn't involved in a high-profile, thoroughly documented battle, it can take a year or more for the Department of Veterans Affairs to search through boxes of yellowed papers stored in obscure warehouses to back up a veteran's claim. Sometimes, the VA can't find any proof at all. But that is about to change.

The VA will launch an online benefit application system next month to help veterans handle the process electronically and cut down the waiting time to receive a check (www.vabene fits.vba.va.gov/vonapp).

"For everything we do now, you must get your hands on paper. By having it in an electronic environment, we are freed from those constraints," said Joseph Thompson, who directs the Veterans Benefits Administration.

A key goal of the Web site is to help veterans navigate their way through the system. A married veteran, for example, would be prompted for information about his spouse and family. A Vietnam vet would be asked about exposure to Agent Orange. And a veteran previously hospitalized for his injuries would be asked to fill in the date and place.

The VA also has redesigned and rewritten its applications — including the notoriously obtuse VA Form 21-526, Veteran's Application for Compensation and/or Pension — into plain English, making them easier to understand.

"It is a quantum step," said John Hanson, the VA's assistant secretary for public affairs. "It will help veterans provide us with information that can speed up granting of a claim. That is the goal, not just to make it electronic."

The VA is still short of making the process completely electronic. It could be several years before the agency is able to fully gather information about a veteran's claim electronically. For the time being, a veteran still must file proof on paper through the mail and send in his signature the old-fashioned way.

Nevertheless, it is a step forward. When a veteran uses the site to complete an application, it is sent directly to the local VA office. Processing begins at once, and the VA office will respond by e-mail letting the veteran know his status.

To make it happen, the VA wanted a consumer-friendly screen that had the feel of Intuit Inc.'s TurboTax, the popular online tax filing software. "You don't need to be an expert in income tax to use that software. And that was the same philosophy we wanted," Thomp-son said.

With those marching orders, Impact Innovations Group, an Atlanta-based technology solutions company, designed a software package called the Veterans Online Application.

The Web site automates the claims submission process and manages confidential data, including more than 25,000 veterans' annual medical exam records used to verify claims. The site wasn't expensive by information technology standards either — the VA paid less than $400,000 for product development. But the agency hopes it will be a way to cut red tape and to more quickly help veterans.

Since July, when the Web site opened on a trial basis, the VA has received 268 electronic applications for compensation and 107 applications for rehabilitation.

John McNeil, assistant director for veterans benefits policy for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, praised the initiative. "We're well aware of what the VA is trying to do, and it's the only way to go. Electronic claims processing, including applications online, is a great service for veterans. They will have the ability to electronically transmit from their bedroom if need be."

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