VA’s IT shop looks to staff up on AI experts, deliver ‘seamless’ digital services to veterans in 2024

The Department of Veterans Affairs is delivering health care and benefits to a record number of veterans. Now it’s calling on its IT shop to make it easier for those veterans to seek VA services online.

VA’s Office of Information and Technology (VA OIT) is planning to update the digital services many veterans rely on to receive VA health care and benefits.

It’s also looking to staff up to support the VA’s largest workforce at the Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration, as well as the veterans they serve.

Kurt DelBene, the assistant secretary for information and technology, and VA’s chief information officer, said VA OIT is making a “modest request” to hire more employees, with a focus on staffing up with artificial intelligence experts.

“As the footprint of VHA and VBA expands because of the PACT Act,  we have a proportional increase that we need to add, in terms of our footprint geographically, to all the different facilities we have, to actually support them with end-user support,” DelBene told reporters in a briefing Thursday.

“Especially with the PACT Act, adding new people who can get health care and benefits from us, it really puts that higher premium around being able to do things like automation,” he added.

The PACT Act, which expands VA health care and benefits eligibility for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service, also gives the VA new pay incentives to recruit and retain employees with in-demand skills.

VA OIT tapped into one of those new pay incentives, a Special Salary Rate for IT and cyber employees, last summer. The SSR gave about 7,000 VA OIT employees a 17% average pay raise.

VA OIT made about 1,000 new hires last year. While the VA is looking to hire more AI experts,  DelBene said the department is using the IT and cyber workforce it already has to accelerate its use of AI tools.

“Our folks are probably more of a jack-of-all-trades. If you go to another location, it may be, ‘Hey, I focus just on end-user support, or I focus just on servers and networking. We ask people to do everything. That makes it a fun job, but it also means there’s a little bit of a higher expectation for those folks,” DelBene said.

Congress passed a continuing resolution on Thursday to avoid a government shutdown and keep current federal spending levels in place through March.

But DelBene urged lawmakers to pass a comprehensive spending deal for the rest of fiscal 2024 — one that gives the VA the funding it needs to make more AI hires.

“We want to staff up in the AI space, in particular, and that becomes challenging under a CR. Obviously, the applied-for budget in 2024 is larger than our existing budget, and that’s what’s necessary to add more headcount,” DelBene said.

Among its AI use cases, the VA is running a tech sprint looking at how these tools could pull insights from paper health records coming from outside the VA medical system.

“There’s a ton of activity that has been focused on research and pilots, and many of those are probably on the cusp of being things that we might be able to deploy more broadly in the coming couple of years,” VA Chief Technology Officer Charles Worthington said. “So we’re trying to set up the scaffolding to support that right now.”

The VA, during a PACT Act special enrollment period last year, saw 40,000 veterans sign up VA health care for the first time. Worthington said that’s the biggest single month on record for new health care sign-ups on VA.gov.

To expedite the health care enrollment for veterans, Worthington said VA OIT is looking at ways to avoid asking the same repetitive questions during the sign-up process.

“When we know who the person is applying for health care, we’re able to cut down the length of time that form takes, by avoiding asking questions that we might already know the answer to,” Worthington said. “Or in the case of a veteran that already has a disability rating, we know that they’re eligible for certain types of health care without asking a bunch of other questions.”

DelBene added: “A veteran ought to go to one place, for instance, to say they got married, or their beneficiaries change. Some of these scenarios we do in a unified way, some we don’t yet. And so, I think we’ve got a few years’ worth of work there to get that really seamless for veterans.”

Worthington said VA OIT is also focused on a “refresh” of the department’s health care tools. That includes an update to features on VA’s My HealtheVet portal.

“Those are going to be still accessible, but are going to be upgraded and integrated with the rest of the VA.gov platform in a way that will make them more powerful and easier to use,” Worthington said.

Worthington said the refresh means that, in addition to core health care functions like messaging VA doctors, veterans can complete related tasks like ordering hearing-aid batteries or requesting travel reimbursement.

“The VA has a lot of unique things that we offer our patients, beyond just the core patient portal experiences. And so, in the coming year, we’re going to be basically delivering a lot of those My HealtheVet experiences within the VA.gov platform in a way that’s going to better integrate those experiences across business lines,” Worthington said.

The VA is also taking steps to meet veterans where they are, and delivering services through more convenient platforms.

“We want the digital channel to be the fastest, most reliable and easiest way for benefits to get the things they need from the VA, so that basically any veteran that wants to use a digital experience to access VA care or benefits should be able to — and that has a ton of benefits,” Worthington said.

Worthington said that most months, the VA is getting more online traffic from smartphones than computers.

“That’s a sign that people are really relying on their phones as a way to access VA information,” he said.

VA’s health and benefits mobile app has more than 2 million downloads, and more than 900,000 veterans are using the app at least once a month.

Among its features, the app allows veterans to message their doctor, check on the status of a health care appointment and check the status of a benefits claim.

Worthington said VA OIT this year is looking to add new features to the mobile app. Those include access to more medical records, such as lab results, and making it easier for veterans to check into medical appointments using their smartphones.

“On the day of an appointment, at the medical center, they’ll be able to indicate to the staff that, ‘Hey, I’m here and check in right from the app,’” Worthington said.

VA also recently made it possible for veteran to download their decision letters for disability claims from their computers and mobile devices.

DelBene said VA OIT is also bringing together disparate systems for an “integrated call center experience” at VHA.

“When the automated call pops, you know who that person is, or what we know about them, and you can immediately get them to the care that they need,” DelBene said.

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