Automation fixes VA student benefits claims


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.

Wilson says the new system is up and running just in time to help with a surge of new students coming in this semester.

Last week, this week, and probably next week is where our volume of incoming (students) kind of peaks, and then it will taper off after that. What we’ve seen overall this fiscal year is about a 14-percent increase in the student population across the board – in all of our programs. All totaled, last fall we paid about 157,000 students Chapter 33 benefits. We’ve received about 206,000 enrollment CERTS so far this fall.

The new system still is not completely automated – as has been requested by some members of Congress. Baker says the Department hopes to have a completely streamlined claims system in place by this December.

Meantime, Veterans Affairs has released its caps on tuition and fees for 2010-2011, key numbers in the processing of payments to colleges and universities for students enrolled this fall.

The caps, based on the highest rates for in-state tuition charged by public institutions, set the maximum payment levels for students using the education benefits program.

Air Force Times reports, while the trend generally is upwards in terms of college costs, there are some extreme increases and decreases in the cost-per-credit hour and maximum fees.

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