Topics: Veterans Affairs

MAKING AMERICA'S HEROES WAIT: Claims backlog grows despite parade of VA 'solutions'

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,VA Disabilities,Veterans Affairs,Veterans

Fifth of a five-part series

A billion-dollar "glitch" was discovered two years ago in the Department of Veterans Affairs computers.

A simple fix was needed to create what amounted to an e-mail alert when veterans receiving temporary disability payments were due for a new medical exam.

The agency's inspector general identified the problem in a January 2011 report, warning it had already contributed to nearly $1 billion in potential overpayments, and if left unchecked could cost that much more over the next five years.

VA officials promised to fix the problem by September 2011, but today concede it wasn't taken care of until July 2012. The IG still isn't sure the problem is gone.

Such episodes spark widespread skepticism about VA promises that its massive new computer system will end the agency's growing backlog of disability claims.

"My fear is we are all sitting and waiting for a computer program that is going to solve this and it ain't going to happen," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Agency officials point to the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), a digital document computer system that they say will allow claims processors instantly to search hundreds of pages now scattered in paper files.

The new system is up and functioning in about 20 of VA's 57 offices, with the rest supposedly coming online by the end of this year. There have been glitches.

The agency's inspector general reported this month that VBMS has been plagued with problems, including long waits to retrieve documents, a lack of organization that forces users to spend hours searching for records, and being unable to process a case from beginning to end.

Making America’s Heroes Wait
A Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative series on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ broken promises to U.S. military veterans.
Monday: Vets trapped in endless VA bureaucracy
Tuesday: Critics, IG say VA cooks claims books
Wednesday: Vets face lies, damn lies and VA statistics
Yesterday: Claims backlog not our fault, VA officials say
Today: Claims backlog grows despite parade of VA ‘solutions’
Read the entire series at this link

The result, said the IG, was that it took longer to process claims in the offices that were first converted to VBMS than under the old system.

Roger Baker, the assistant VA secretary for information and technology, said the glitches identified by the IG were fixed and the system is working fine where it has been deployed.

He also questioned the ability of the IG and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which in December reached similar conclusions, to judge such a complex system based on research done in the early stages of implementation.

"They don't have the expertise to audit it," Baker told The Washington Examiner after a congressional hearing yesterday. "We already looked at the problems that they put in their reports and addressed those problems, even before they wrote their report."

Another unknown is how much VBMS will cost. Baker could not provide a specific figure. Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, told a House committee in July the tab would be $537 million from development through deployment to 16 offices in 2012.

That should largely cover the total cost of the system for all regional offices, Baker said. It does not include the tab for electronically scanning documents - estimated by the IG at about $350 million - or training employees to use the new system, he said.

VA officials also tout 40 other initiatives they contend will speed claims processing and reduce the backlog, including putting quality review teams in all regional offices and simplified paperwork.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said he's heard the promises before because the fixes VA is pushing now have already been tried without success.

"You see the same pilot programs with different titles," Miller said. His committee's 2013 priorities are to fix the claims backlog and mend VA's broken mental health care system.

The GAO also was skeptical of the VA's promises in its December 2012 report, which found VBMS and the other initiatives touted by the agency lack specificity, focus and accountability.

"Without a comprehensive plan to strategically manage resources and evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts, the agency risks spending limited resources on initiatives that may not speed up disability claims and appeals processes," GAO investigators concluded.

"This may, in turn, result in forcing veterans to continue to wait months and even years to receive compensation for injuries incurred during their service to the country."

Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, the ranking Democrat on the House veterans committee, said the VA's entire disability rating claims process is a "patched-together system" that may need a complete overhaul.

"We don't want to see a situation where we essentially have new acronyms and initiatives that look good on Powerpoint, but do little to change the reality," Michaud said.

"I don't want to see attempts as message management. We need tangible and meaningful reform."

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner Watchdog reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com

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