Veterans Affairs

Hill watchdogs warn on shortcomings in VA's claims system

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is scaling up an IT system to help benefits administrators reduce a backlog of veteran claims.  But the VA's top watchdog in the House of Representatives is worried that the system is over budget, behind schedule and not working as advertised.

The Veterans Benefits Management System was developed to overcome the massive backlog of disability claims by digitizing claims forms and expediting claims decisions.  According to Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, VBMS is making a dent in the claims backlog, but could be doing a lot better. The agency's own internal watchdog thinks that VA could be manipulating data to make their performance seem better on paper than it is in fact.

By the VA's accounting, VBMS has greatly reduced the backlog, although the agency did not meet its self-imposed goal of eliminating backlogged claims completely by the end of 2015.

According to Beth McCoy, the VA's deputy undersecretary for field operations, who testified at a Jan. 12 hearing of the House panel, backlogged claims (defined as claims older than 125 days) have dropped from a peak of over 611,000 in March 2013 to about 80,000 today. McCoy credited the reduction of nearly 90 percent in part to department's work on the electronic system.

However, Brent Arronte, the VA's deputy assistant inspector general for audits and investigations, questioned the integrity of the VA's numbers, saying the data had been "manipulated."

"We don't believe all the [backlog] numbers are reliable," Arronte said. "We want to see how they count their numbers." He added, "There may be a systemic issue across the nation, so we're going to test their data reliability,"

The exact impact of the VBMS has also attracted the attention of the Government Accountability Office.In a Sept. 2015 report, the GAO expressed concern that the system wasn't completed, and that the agency hadn't put in place a way to collect user feedback to generate improvements.

Miller recognized the 'department's progress, but made clear that he felt not enough has been done.

"As of Jan. 1, 2016, there were over 360,000 disability claims pending, over 75,000 of which were [backlogged]," he said. "This is despite Congress devoting substantial taxpayer resources -- including significantly increasing VBA's workforce by approximately 7,300 full-time employees between 2007 and 2014." Miller said that "The projected cost of the program has jumped to $1.3 billion, and there is no guarantee that VA will not need more money for VBMS in the future."

Legislators were visibly displeased by those vagaries. But the moment that most frustrated committee members was when they were presented a picture from a January GAO report of a VA storage facility with boxes containing about 41,000 un-scanned claims; all claims are supposed to be scanned and uploaded to the VBMS within five days of receipt.

"If veterans saw that [picture], they would be livid," said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.). "That looks worse than my garage."

McCoy told lawmakers that she believed the claims backlog could be eliminated in fiscal year 2018.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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