VA, National Archives team up to help dig out of claims backlog

Thursday - 4/26/2012, 5:23am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has teamed up with the National Archives and Records Administration as it tries to evolve to a paperless disability claims process, a process that VA believes is the only way it can finally sort through its huge backlog of claims.

VA and NARA have signed a deal to use the archives agency's high-speed, high-quality scanners to digitize the huge quantity of paper records the Veterans Benefits Administration currently uses to make benefits decisions, Roger Baker, VA's chief information officer told reporters Wednesday.

Roger Baker, chief information officer, Veterns Affairs (VA)

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has set a goal to eliminate the backlog of disability claims at VA by 2015 and make sure at least 98 percent of new claims are processed accurately. As of the end of March, almost 590,000 veterans had been waiting more than 125 days for a decision, which is VA's definition of a "backlogged" claim. In all, nearly 900,000 total claims are pending in the Veterans Benefits Administration.

VA said the new paperless claims system isn't a silver bullet for the claims process, but Baker said the agency can't break the backlog without it.

"That system is just key to our ability to start bringing down the backlog, and it is, by the way, an example of why IT is an investment and not an expense," he said. "This is how IT systems really need to be viewed."

The paperless effort is called the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS). To use it effectively, VA has to take vast quantities of paper documents — billions of pages, Baker says — and turn them into electronic records.

Paper-based process

"A large percentage of the work we receive on the benefits side is paper-based," he said. "To work with that in a paperless environment, you've got to scan it in and do what we call smart scanning on it to glean the information off of it. For the pilot and the initial production, we turned to NARA to do that work. It's very high quality work and it was pretty easy to do a government-to-government arrangement there. But we're looking at very, very high volumes of scanning coming up, so I think you can expect to see us look at broader industry approaches to this."

VA started using NARA's scanned documents in the new VBMS system at a pilot location in Providence, R.I., then expanded it to VBA claims processing centers in Salt Lake City, Fort Harrison, Mont. and Wichita, Neb., releasing new capabilities in three-month intervals.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (VA)

While it works to cut the backlog, VA and Congress are hearing from veterans and veterans service organizations that the wait time for adjudication on a benefits claim is still far too long. The House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on the topic last week.

Paper-based claims are not the only problem with the disability process, the groups said.

"The backlog of claims pending is too high and the accuracy of claims decisions remains too low. While Congress has significantly increased resources, funding and personnel over the past several years, there have also been major increases in the number of claims filed, the number of contentions per claim, and the complexity of rating decisions," Jeffrey Hall, the assistant national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans, testified. "While the elimination of the backlog will be a welcome milestone, we must remember that eliminating the backlog is not necessarily the same goal as reforming the claims processing system, nor does it guarantee that veterans are better served. The backlog is a symptom of a broken system, not the root cause."

Scanning alone won't solve backlog

The veterans' services organizations say VA needs to implement more rigorous training for its claims adjudicators, and that their claims advocates sometimes get more training on the claims process than VA's own staff.

Baker agreed that simply scanning documents won't solve the claims backlog. But he said VA has been working hard to incorporate recommendations from veterans groups into the new claims system.

"There's a lot of aspects of VBMS that are oriented around a number of the things that I saw come up in that hearing," he said. "We've been listening to them. We may not have communicated back well enough that we've been listening and implementing some of the things that were brought up. The big issue for us is that there's a lot of paper there. We're going to have to scan a lot of documents, and it's just something we're going to have to wrestle with over the next several years. It's part of the plan, but it's a huge part of the plan."

Baker said VA won't scan 100 percent of the documents in its vast storehouses of paper. It'll prioritize new claims that are coming in via the new paperless claims system for the first time. Older claims that were initially processed on paper will likely stay on paper.

And he said an important part of streamlining the process will be reducing the amount of new paper that comes into VBA as much as possible.

"A real focus from our standpoint for us is to really get all new information electronically," he said. "We're trying to reach out and touch DoD and private health providers so that we get electronic information instead of paper so we never have to do any scanning for that information."

VA plans to have the VBMS system production-ready by July, and roll it out to the first 16 VBA offices by September, Baker said.

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