VA automation speeds up GI Bill claims

Tuesday - 2/1/2011, 7:53am EST

WFED's Jared Serbu

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By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday that a new automated claims processing system designed for education benefits under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill had succeeded in accelerating the process of delivering benefits to veteran students.

VA officials say it has been steadily driving down a backlog of claims that pushed the department to institute an emergency payments system in 2009 to bridge students' financial needs until their checks could be issued.

But Mike Walcoff, VA's acting undersecretary for benefits, said Monday the agency had managed to cut the processing time for new claims from 59 days to 25 days. He also said the number of claims VA was able to process each day increased from 2,000 in 2009 to 10,000 today.

Unlike the original Montgomery GI Bill, which gave essentially the same education benefits to everyone who was eligible, the post-9/11 version has a lot of variables, including with different payment levels to beneficiaries in different states and housing allowances that are based on a veteran's location, Walcoff said in a conference call with reporters.

"The complexity of the bill was so much greater than anything we'd ever administered before," he said. "We really didn't realize how difficult it was going to be."

To cope with that complexity and the compressed timeline VA was facing, the agency adopted an agile technology approach and partnered with the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command to build a new system from the ground up. VA is building the technology in increments, with new pieces of the system going into service along the way, said Roger Baker, VA's chief information officer and assistant secretary for information and technology.

"We had a substantial culture change occur as between the office of information and technology and the Veterans Benefits Administration," Baker said. "We put together an integrated team, built them a special room to make certain that they all lived and worked together for the time period and really focused on (the idea that) there is no opportunity to fail. This team must succeed."

Baker said the approach let VA develop an IT system that worked well with very little lead time. The department intends to put the lessons it learned with the GI Bill software development process into practice on other large projects.

"We're not going to edict that all of our on-going development projects-and there are about a hundred of them--will use agile technology, but we are using it on more and more of our projects," he said. "We're very pleased with the results we get out of it. It fits very, very well with our disciplined approach to project management, the program management accountability system. Agile is built to provide frequent deliveries to the customer so they can tell you whether or not you're on track."

Baker said another benefit of the system VA built is that it should make future changes to the GI Bill program less painful from an IT perspective. And VA will test that prospect this year as it implements even more legislative changes to the program signed into law by President Obama early this year.

"The fundamental technology that we implemented was designed specifically for exactly this type of situation," he said. "We know that the education benefits programs live in a world where legislative changes occur and we did not want them to always have to go back and rewrite the software every time a legislative change had occurred."

Baker said VA was confident that this year's implementation of benefit changes would not lead to a repeat of what occurred when the benefits were instituted in 2009. In September of that year the number of unprocessed claims peaked at 160,000.

Since 2009, VA has paid out more than $8 billion in claims under the new GI Bill to 440,000 students.

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