Lawmakers frustrated with ‘bureaucratic incompetence’ as VBA struggles with overdue benefits changes

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It’s been 15 months since the Forever GI Act was passed, but the Veterans Benefits Administration’s IT systems still can’t handle the new GI Bill payments it requires. The VBA missed a deadline to implement these new systems in August, and now that it looks like the agency won’t be ready for the spring semester either, lawmakers on the Economic Opportunity subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee wanted to know why.

Bill James, deputy assistant secretary for development and operations in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Information & Technology, told the committee during the Nov. 15 hearing that the new software meant to handle the payments couldn’t just plug and play with VA’s legacy systems, because they were so old. He likened the process to trying to replace a carburetor with a fuel injector without upgrading the rest of the engine.

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But some members of the committee are getting tired of hearing about legacy systems at VA.

“This is an IT issue. It feels like an exercise in futility,” subcommittee chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) said. “Just about every program and every good intention of this committee, where we’re trying to solve a problem and serve our veterans, and then it’s just more IT rigmarole, legacy this-that-and-the-other, and brokenness and dysfunction. I feel like there’s a leadership issue. I feel like there’s a lack of strategic management. I don’t think there’s a real plan for the IT architecture of this agency. I just think it’s fundamentally broken.”

James and the other witnesses from VA, Paul Lawrence, undersecretary for benefits at VBA, and Robert Worley, director of the Education Service for VBA, continually assured lawmakers that the agency has the resources it needs to fix the problem. It’s just taking longer than expected to do it right.

Lawrence told lawmakers that some technical issues had slowed the implementation down. For example, some institutions where veterans chose to pursue their education did not have facility codes, so the system had to be changed to use zip codes. And inputting the new computations for allowances also proved to be more difficult than expected.

Because of this, when the August deadline arrived, VBA decided it hadn’t done enough use-case testing to fully rely on the system yet. While it had been tested in 29 use-case scenarios by August, VBA came up with 83 more it wanted to run. Lawrence said there are more than 100 people working on these currently, between VA personnel and contractors. The idea is that these use-cases will reduce the potential for issues when the system goes live.

And Lawrence assured lawmakers that even though the system won’t be ready by the spring semester, that doesn’t mean there will be an interruption in service. It will simply be business-as-usual: VBA will just continue to process the payments manually. It will also continue using the old housing rates. Lawrence said the new housing rates are on average 1 percent higher, which means some veterans are actually getting overpaid. But he assured the committee that VA wouldn’t be clawing back those overpayments. Instead, they’d be written off as administrative errors.

This was a particular point of concern for the committee, due to reports that veterans waiting on their housing payments were losing their homes, or were in danger of that outcome. But Lawrence said those reports were untrue.

“We work with VSOs, your staff, to identify anybody who would say ‘I’m in a hardship situation.’ We’ve found about a 1000 of those people. And I will tell you, everytime we’ve looked where someone said ‘there’s widespread activity where people are …’ we found that not to be true. We are not finding that systematically happening,” Lawrence said. “We’ve looked at those stories sir, and it’s hard to speak more broadly, when we’ve gone and found those, they are generally not true. We’ve tried to find them. We have no confirmed cases of somebody being evicted.”

Backlog

Lawmakers asked about a backlog of 73,000 pending benefits claims, but Worley said that was both normal and manageable. Only 1000 of those claims are older than 60 days, and only 10,000 older than 30 days. Not all of those involve money either, Lawrence said.

Worley said the VBA was waiting on information from the veterans, the schools, or the Defense Department in most of those cases. In fact, he said the VBA usually exceeds its targets on processing those claims.

“Our targets for original claims, which is original applications, is 28 days. Historically we’ve done much, much better than that. For supplemental claims, 14 days, and historically we’ve been in the single digits for those with our automation. Today, there are 92 claims that are over 90 days,” Worley said.

And the only reason there was even that much of a backlog, Lawrence said, is because VBA made the mistake of waiting for the system to be ready. By the time it realized the system was going to miss the deadline, the claims had started to pile up. VBA received 207,000 claims on September 14 alone. He said VBA does not intend to make that same mistake in the spring semester, but will go ahead with processing claims manually.

Currently, Worley said, VBA employees are working overtime to get the system up and running. The VBA has a budget for $6 million in voluntary overtime, and thus far has only used $2 million of it.

But the committee wasn’t entirely convinced that everything was moving forward again. Arrington and Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), the committee’s ranking member, both insisted that the VBA provide an official timeline for getting the system online. Other lawmakers expressed their frustration as well.

“This administration, the Trump administration promised to clean up the culture of bureaucratic incompetence inside the VA,” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said. “Based on this testimony today, and other hearings we’ve had, I don’t think they’ve made a lick of difference.”