VA to use IT to speed disability benefits

The Veterans Affairs Department will improve to the disability claims process to reduce the time it takes for veterans to receive their benefits, a senior official has said.

VA plans to implement information technology and business process improvements recommended by IBM, said Michael Walcoff, VA’s deputy undersecretary for benefits in the Veterans Benefits Administration.

VA had a backlog of 397,077 disability claims as of Jan. 31, and the number of claims continues to increase. The department received 838,141 claims in fiscal 2007. Even though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fueling an increase in the rate of claims each year, VA has maintained the claims inventory at about 400,000, Walcoff said at a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee Feb. 14.

He added that VA has begun hiring more employees and seeking ways to improve productivity.

Last September, VA officials hired IBM Global Business Services to analyze the department's benefits processes and propose changes. Most of IBM’s recommendations focused on upgrading information technology to facilitate the move to a paperless environment, Walcoff said. As part of those changes, in fiscal 2009 VA plans to add electronic signatures and e-authentication so  electronic documents can feed directly into the agency’s IT systems and veterans won’t have to submit paper documents.

VA also plans to institute electronic workflow management to reduce the need to physically move claims folders from place to place. However, that system must be completed in conjunction with an electronic content management system, which will integrate with business applications through an electronic folder. The content management system would send data from the corporate database to the electronic folder, Walcoff said.

“The biggest challenge and expense for VBA to convert to electronic content management is the scanning of paper records,” he said. Two pilot projects that are testing imaging technology will be expanded this year.

Ultimately, VA will provide a secure online portal so that veterans can access their claims information and conduct transactions online. The department already has the secure Veterans Information Portal, chiefly for lenders and appraisers who assist veterans participating in VA’s loan guaranty program. Efforts are underway to develop applications for disability compensation that would be available through the portal, as recommended by the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, Walcoff said.

Government Accountability Office officials say VA needs to do more. Although the department has taken steps to tackle its claims-processing challenges, fundamental revisions to the program’s design would elicit better performance improvement, said Dan Bertoni, director of education, workforce and income security at GAO. VA officials should re-examine the structure and division of labor among field offices and update its disability rating schedule to reflect today’s labor market, he added.

“VA’s rating schedule, upon which disability decisions are made, is based primarily on estimates made in 1945 about the effect of service-connected impairments on the average individual’s ability to perform jobs requiring manual labor,” Bertoni said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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