Lawmakers pan VA disability system, despite cuts in claims backlog

Congress and the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General are skeptical of the Veterans Benefits Management System, despite substantial reductions in backlogged disability claims.

The VBMS price tag has ballooned from about $580 million to $1.3 billion, and combined with a lack of tangible goals, some lawmakers are questioning the value of the endeavor.

“We had a paper-based system under the previous administration. The electronic system we are trying to move to with VBMS has obviously had its share of problems, but my contention is we are probably better off even with all the problems we had [before with paper] … than we were had we not attempted to [move to electronic filing],” said Mark Takano (D-Calif.) during a Jan. 12 House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing.

“I concur,” said committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).

VBMS is only one of the department’s attempts since 1988 to move to an electronic claims processing system. VBMS was created in 2009 with a mission of reducing claims processing times and improving accuracy in adjudications.

During the hearing, Veterans Benefits Administration officials said they have reached the goal of creating an “electronic file room” for disability claims. VBA has gone further to try to provide more services, but could not articulate what goals it was striving toward.

VBA officials said they are working toward coming up with goals for 2018.

“You have a never-ending project with a never-ending price tag that has moving goals, and you tell us at the beginning it’s only going to be $580 million, but magically it’s at $1.3 billion with no end in sight, no timeframe in sight, just ‘we’ll let you know in 2018,’” said Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.).

VBA officials said they have reduced the backlog of disability claims by 88 percent from 2013. The backlog currently stands at about 75,000.

VBA Deputy Undersecretary for Field Operations Beth McCoy partly attributed faster disability claims to the VBMS.

“In every step of the process, from intake processing to evidence gathering to the rating decisions to awarding the benefit, VBMS continues to transform the way our claims processors work,” McCoy said.

McCoy said VBA is also working with a 91 percent claims processing accuracy rate.

An American Federation of Government Employees survey found 62 percent of VBA employees thought VBMS improved their productivity at work. Also, 83 percent said VBMS as a whole has improved.

Still, the VA IG found that the reduction in backlogs cannot specifically be attributed to VBMS.

Deputy Assistant IG for Audits and Evaluations Brent Arronte testified that VBA used more than 40 initiatives to reduce its backlog, including $130 million in mandatory overtime and reallocating staff to process only claims that affect the backlog, while sacrificing time for other claims such as those on appeal.

“Further, VBA’s improved claims processing accuracy rate is related to a change in methodology regarding how they calculate error rates for claims processing accuracy, and not specifically an aspect of VBMS,” Arronte said.

VA IG also found a significant backlog of unprocessed mail waiting to be scanned into the VBMS.

“This resulted from inefficient preparation and handling of veteran-provided documentation at a contractor-operated facility,” Arronte said.

One such facility in Florida had almost 42,000 packages of veterans’ claims material that were backlogged and more than 1,600 boxes awaiting processing at the scanning facility.

A Government Accountability Office report from September found that “the development of VBMS was expected to be completed in 2015 [but] implementation of functionality to fully support electronic claims processing has been delayed beyond 2015.”

Additionally, the report states VBA has not yet produced a plan that identified when the system will be completed.

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    Lawmakers pan VA disability system, despite cuts in claims backlog

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