Yesterday, the VA provided still more excuses about its failure to address the disability claims backlog. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing was more of the same from the VA on the issue.
The Electronic Claims Conversion Silver Bullet
For the past few months, insiders have talked to me about the VA’s total failure to plan for the transition between paper files and electronic files. This longtime “silver bullet” solution of the VA’s to address the backlog is nothing more than a pipe dream.
Yes, using technology is important. However, will it matter if the same poorly trained person reviews an electronic file or a paper file? No. They will still arrive at the same wrong conclusion, which is part of the problem. A significant amount of resources are held up in working disability appeals, and the number of appeals cases is increasing.
Why the Conversion Is Not the Full Solution
Meanwhile, bigger issues lay on the horizon. First, VA has failed to identify a company or agency that can scan all the veterans’ files into electronic forms in a timely manner. Right now, the VA has a contract with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to manage the process. That contract is expiring next week. Even if the contract is renewed, NARA needs another 4,000 to process the electronic transition within a reasonable amount of time. There is no contingency on the conversion process if the contract is not renewed.
Second, even if all the files are transitioned to electronic, the VA allegedly does not have a contingency plan if the system crashes. If true, this means there is no redundancy built into the program in the event of a crash, and the files could be lost. According to insiders, Undersecretary Hickey is so confident in the quality of the VA system that she believes it’s unnecessary.
I wish the rest of us shared her confidence. Given the VA’s tendency for shredding files and losing veterans’ documentation, I think building in some form of redundancy should be required. Either that, or veterans will need to download and print out their entire files on a regular basis to ensure they are backed up properly.
My main concern with this program is that the VA has pushed claims that the electronic conversion will be the main savior of the disability claims backlog. Now, the backlog is approaching 1.3 million according to the DAV. Even if the backlog does reduce the backlog in the future, the backlog will continue to grow while the VA fusses with they system.
I expect the backlog to grow substantially over the next year before the conversion takes effect. The reason for this is because it will take years for VA employees to get used to the new system. For 60 years, claims adjudicators have been used to tabbing paper veterans’ files. They can flip through those files quickly. Once the files are converted, those same adjudicators, many of which are baby-boomers, will need to relearn their trade via computer. If things go anything like they did when the Social Security system changed over, there will be chaos for some time.
Disability Claims Hearing Press Release
I have included the press release below. Be sure to contact your local Congressman if you have concerns about the program. For more detailed testimony from the hearing, select the link below.
WASHINGTON, D.C. —Today, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held an oversight hearing entitled “Reclaiming the Process: Examining the VBA Claims Transformation Plan as a Means to Effectively Serve Our Veterans.” At the hearing, the Committee learned that VA has yet to completely implement a comprehensive transformation plan to provide veterans with a paperless disability claims process that relies on accuracy the first time a claim is submitted.
“Various initiatives have great potential, but despite repeated promises, the backlog continues to grow,” stated Rep. Gus Bilirakis, Vice Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “In addition, the rate of accuracy and processing time has remained stagnant. Since 2009, Secretary Shinseki has promised to ‘break the back of the backlog.’ Instead, three years later, the backlog has grown by half a million claims.”
The hearing focused on VBA’s transformation plan, which centers on the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), a program that is supposed to digitize disability claims and make the process more timely and accurate. Yet, only a handful of Regional Offices are using VBMS to help process claims with full roll out scheduled later this year. VA has consistently referred to VBMS as the cornerstone of its transformation process.
VA’s main partner to digitize veterans’ claims is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Their contract with VA expires next week and NARA officials cited the need for an estimated 4,000 additional employees to address the current backlog.
VA announced earlier today that the backlog increase due to the processing of retroactive Agent Orange claims has been largely addressed, and that should free up claims processors around the country. As of today, however, VA’s backlog stands at 839,028 claims, of which more than 55% have been pending more than 125 days.
In addition, the Committee continued to question VA on its justification of exorbitant bonuses to well-paid senior executives who oversee the worsening claims process, especially in light of today’s tough economy and tight fiscal climate.
“Secretary Shinseki estimates that more than 1 million veterans from Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom are expected to enter VA. What will happen to the backlog then? Will veterans be stuck in the system indefinitely? It is time for VA to uphold its responsibility, to our veterans and to the American people, to break this cycle of unproductively and deliver the benefits that VA was created to provide,” said Bilirakis.“ Every one of these claims represents a veteran and their family patiently waiting, not just a stack of paper on a bureaucrat’s desk. Technology should and must be used as there is a lot of innovation in the marketplace today to address many of these issues. But technology alone is not the silver bullet, and it is clear to me it will take continued oversight and pressure from Congress and veterans before VA turns a corner.”
House Committee on Veterans Affairs Press Release