Call it the demise of the old rubber thumb and the rise of the computerized keyword search.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to change the way veterans file disability and other claims in hopes of speeding up an antiquated, paper-bound process that seems like an image from a different era.
As recently as 2012, VA employees would have to search through veterans’ files, which in some cases were up to 4 feet high and included everything from X-rays to eye exams to evidence of amputations.
The new system introduces standardized electronic forms for veterans to fill out. The goal is to computerize a lengthy process that VA officials say led to long delays in handling claims and appeals.
During the peak of the backlog in March 2013, there were 611,000 disability compensation and pensions claims. Today, the backlog is 243,000, a reduction of 60 percent in 18 months.
The VA’s definition of a “backlogged” case is one in which a veteran has been waiting for 125 days or longer.
Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, said that the VA has scanned 1 billion images, or 8.1 million pounds of paperwork, enough to fill 28 massive C-5 Galaxy cargo planes.
She said the backlog was in part due to the mounds of paper that claims adjudicators had to sort through to make their decisions.
“Before we had raters sitting with little rubber fingertips going through the 18 inches of paper in a veteran’s record, searching for one word that indicates their injury in that record. They would spend a really long time trying to find that,” she said.
She said that today, they can simply use a keyword search to find the word. And it’s done in seconds. The system is known as the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), and the VA’s army of 29,000 claims processors are able to see the electronic medical records.
The program was launched under a pilot program in 2012 at five regional offices. As of June 2013, the system was rolled out to all 56 VA regional offices. Today it’s used at 148 VA facilities.
There has been some resistance, especially from older veterans who are not as comfortable with the technology. And a majority of veterans still file their claims on paper. But she said there are many training opportunities that veterans groups are offering, and many veterans find the system easier than they expected.
“Sometimes the federal government is known for not always delivering on IT systems in particularly good ways,” Hickey said at a briefing and demo for reporters held in the Veterans Benefits Administration’s downtown D.C. headquarters. “But I think this is a huge success story.”