Claims backlog, vets' transition top issues for next VA chief

The biggest challenges the Veterans Affairs Department faces are reducing the backlog of disability claims and smoothing the transition of soldiers from the Defense Department to VA care, said VA Secretary James Nicholson, as he prepares to leave government.

VA also must determine how to solve the problem of aging hospitals and other facilities as the demand for their use is increasing. Nicholson steps down Oct. 1.

The House Veterans' Affairs Committee praised the secretary for how he readily accepted responsibility and responded to challenges as they emerged, sometimes by surprise.

Since Nicholson became secretary in early 2005, the VA faced a $2 billion budget shortfall, a growing claims backlog and a data breach involving 26.5 million veterans and active-duty personnel, and another incident earlier this year in Birmingham, Ala., said House Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner (D-Calif.).

“The VA has made strides toward meeting its goal of being the gold standard in [information technology] security, but much work remains to be done,” Filner said.

Nicholson issued several directives to tighten data security and centralized the IT structure and authority under the department chief information officer, one of the few agencies to do so.

“This consolidation and the resulting heightened security of personal identifying information will make the VA the gold standard in the realm of information privacy and security,” Nicholson told the lawmakers.

When poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were uncovered, Nicholson was appointed lead on the Task Force on Returning Global War on Terror Heroes to improve federal health care services and benefits for veterans and soldiers.

Among its many recommendations, the task force urged that VA and DOD accelerate the interoperability of their electronic health records to improve the delivery of health care. VA has received wide acclaim for its health record system, VistA, the Veterans’ Health Information System of Technology Architecture.

But the disability claims backlog has been tough to resolve, Nicholson said.

“The claims backlog is an issue that has bedeviled me and many that have come before me,” he said.

Although claims are quickly increasing as a result of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, VA will have hired 3,100 additional employees this year and next year and is consolidating some components of the process, he said. VA anticipates reducing the number of days it takes to process a disability claim from 180 to 145 in the coming year, he told lawmakers.

Between fiscal 2000 and 2006, disability claims rose from 578,000 to more than 800,000. VA expects to receive 835,000 claims during this year, he said.

More fallout from the war comes from the increasing numbers of warfighters with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Nicholson has directed that all returning soldiers be screened for those conditions when they visit physicians on their return. He has hired 100 outreach coordinators to pave the way for veterans’ services and has increased the number of veteran centers locations for counseling.

VA also seeks to create a new position -- assistant secretary for acquisition and construction -- to manage the magnitude and complexity of the department’s modernization of its buildings and new facilities, Nicholson said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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