VA embracing digital age


Diana M. Rubens is the Deputy Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Baltimore. The VA regional center in Baltimore is among those with the longest waits for veterans. The transition from a paper workflow is in progress. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
January 20, 2013

The disability claim filed at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ regional office in November was rather banal — a Marine Corps veteran of the Gulf War, seeking compensation for flat feet aggravated by his service — but when the claim was closed Dec. 12, it was something of a landmark: the office’s first entirely paperless case.

In the VA vision, the Connecticut office represents the future of disability claims processing, one that will replace an antiquated system that has buried the department’s regional offices under reams of paper.

In September, Hartford became the first VA office in the country to switch to the Veterans Benefits Management System, or VBMS. The digital, paperless system now used in 18 locations around the nation, is to be fielded in all 56 offices by the end of the year.

“It feels so good to be part of the 21st century, when it comes to technology,” said Diana Rubens, VA deputy undersecretary for field operations.

In pilot testing at the Salt Lake City and Providence, R.I., offices, the VBMS cut the average time to process a case from 240 days to 119, according to the agency.

Baltimore’s scheduled switch this year to the paperless claims system “is really going to give us a boost,” predicted Michael Scheibel, director of the office.

The launch of the VBMS, which has cost $537 million through 2012, will probably not be a panacea for the troubled VA disability claims process, but the department considers it the most critical piece of its efforts to transform the system.

It is too soon to gauge its impact in Hartford, already one of the better-performing VA offices, with a 138-day average waiting time for claims — less than a third of that in Baltimore.

In Hartford, VA workers had to cope with software bugs and long lag times in opening documents, said Jared Taylor, a veterans service representative who handled the office’s first paperless case.

But Taylor, a former Marine staff sergeant who fought at Fallujah in Iraq, sees long-term promise. “It still has a ways to go,” he said. “Overall, the system is starting to let us develop cases more quickly.”

Despite the paperless label, the VA disability claims system will remain weighted under paper for some time. Before they can be processed in the VBMS, existing paper claims have to be converted for digital use by scanning and data extraction technologies. Veteran services representatives complain that VA has no detailed plans for how they will tackle the enormous task without creating new logjams.

Moreover, though VA encourages filing claims online, many veterans, particularly older ones, continue to file with paper.

Claims coming into Hartford have to be boxed up and sent to contractors in Georgia and Kentucky, where they are scanned and uploaded, a process that adds up to 10 days to the process. VA has positioned employees with the contractors to ensure that the right documents are uploaded.

“If you don’t get it right in what you’re imaging, the folks at the other end are up the creek without a paddle,” Rubens said.

Even once the documents are uploaded, it can take several days before they show up in the system, a problem VA says will be addressed by new versions of software.

Some veterans’ advocates fear that VA, eager to claim progress, may be rolling out the system before it is ready.

When five more offices were brought on to the VBMS in December, computer servers unable to handle all the additional users slowed to a crawl. The Houston office had to suspend its use of the VBMS for several days in late December while systems engineers fixed a server problem. VA says the problems have been resolved.

“It’s going to be a long road, and it takes time,” said Alan Bozeman, director of the VBMS program.

For Nate Benko, a veteran service representative in Hartford, the mission to better serve veterans is personal. The wall of his cubicle bears three photographs of soldiers he served with in Iraq who were later killed in action. “This is what heroes look like,” he has written below the pictures.

Benko straddles VA’s paper and digital worlds. A cart by his desk holds an eight-volume file, all representing one veteran. Finding a key piece of information could involve sifting through thousands of pages.

By contrast, VBMS software enables him to search another veteran’s electronic folder with a variety of filters and quickly find the same information.

“It can save you anywhere from an hour to days,” Benko said. “I don’t have to flip through every piece of paper. It makes my job finding what I need significantly easier.”

In addition to saving time, the hope Benko and his colleagues hold is that the paperless system will also reduce errors.

The new system makes life difficult for “top-sheeters” — employees who breeze through paperwork without looking past the first page, overlooking important details or passing along obvious mistakes, said Melissa Michaud, a Hartford veterans service representative.

Red X’s pop up on the computer screen, compelling employees to address missing or erroneous information, she said, instead of “just skimming over or skipping over, which they probably would have done with paper.”

Steve Vogel is a reporter for the national staff of The Washington Post who covers the federal government and frequently writes about the military and veterans.
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