Automation fixes VA student benefits claims

Tuesday - 9/7/2010, 7:13am EDT

WFED's Scott Carr

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By Scott Carr
Federal News Radio

What a difference automation makes. Veterans Affairs is finally getting ahead of the curve in processing claims under the post-9/11 GI Bill now that lingering problems with their data system are apparently fixed.

Top VA officials say their automated data integration system, dubbed the Long Term Solution, has not only fixed the problems that led to late or missing education payments at the start of the 2009 school year, but has proved to be critical in getting payments out on time this year.

2009 marked the first school year under the new GI Bill rules, and older manual processing systems just were not up to handling the claims. Tens of thousands of students did not receive tuition or housing reimbursements until months into the fall semester.

Veterans Affairs Chief Information Officer Roger Baker says, they're now caught up with all back due payments, while the time it takes to process student's paperwork is cut in half.

What we're terming the long term solution is a much more automated process that, importantly, uses much more modern technology that we can build on to further automate the payments' processing. All veteran records, relative to payments that have been made to them, have been converted into that system, and all processing for GI Bill payments is occurring on that system. That conversion was completed successfully as of August 23rd. But, we're at the point now where all 1,200 claims processors are using that system every day to process all GI Bill claims. We are extremely pleased with the quality of that solution, and we're off and rolling.

The software was installed on schedule during July. We did have a delay in getting the data conversion done, and making certain that we had minimal errors on that. We opted for quality over just pushing it in, and I think that's been very important. Clearly, we needed to be certain that we didn't cause any processing hiccups going into that fall enrollment.

Problems emerged when the military's Basic Housing Allowance rates were updated at the start of this year. Baker says with the help of the automated system they have calculated those payments, and are now paying them retroactively.

Under the previous system we were unable to move to 2010 BAH rates. And so we have been paying veterans at the 2009 rates through the first eight months of 2010. We have calculated, and are submitting payments for 153,000 veterans retroactively at this point.

Some members of Congress were not pleased last fall when Director of the VAs Office of Education Services Keith Wilson testified that processing each student's GI Bill claim was taking about 90 minutes to complete. Claims officials were stuck using dry-erase boards and calculators to navigate the complex new benefits. Now, Wilson says the new data systems are cutting that processing time to about 45 minutes.

To give you a comparison of where we're at this fall over the previous fall; last fall at this time we had processed something less than 12,000 claims for Chapter 33 benefits. That's the number of people that we paid. And, as of the same point this year we have already paid 130,000 folks. So, we're light years ahead of where we were at at this time last year. On average in August it took us about ten days to process an enrollment CERT once we received it. We expect to maintain strong performace through the rest of the fall, but that by no stetch should be intertpreted as us taking our eye off of the ball, here. But, we're very happy with how we've started off.

Overall, in terms of our capacity, going into last fall we could produce about 2,000 claims a day. On average now what we're seeing is about 10,000 claims a day. So, our productive capacity is much higher, and that has put us in a much better position.

Roger talked about the VAH retroactive payments. That is something we've worked very hard on. As he mentioned, 153,000 folks were due VAH retros. If we had had to pay those manually, using our claims examiners, it really would have put us in a world of hurt for the fall semester. So, we did modify our schedule for the IT deployments, and we were able to successfully automate those payments which has really gone a long way to preserving our success in the fall.