The Veterans Benefits Administration is looking to accelerate its use of automation tools this summer to keep pace with its workload and break new records on the number of claims it can process in a year.
VBA officials told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that increased automation stands out as a key part of the agency’s five-year modernization plan.
Raymond Tellez, VA’s acting assistant deputy under secretary for automated benefits delivery, told lawmakers on Wednesday that VBA, as part of its five-year modernization plan, is piloting automation technology to help decrease the time it takes to process claims.
Tellez said VBA expects these tools will drive down a growing backlog of claims within two years. He told lawmakers the backlog will peak at about 400,000 cases between now and 2024, will “drop dramatically” and fall below 100,000 claims by 2025.
“We are factoring two years because of the sort of conservative approach that we are doing for automation. Change is hard, our employees have been, through the last 10 years, some huge transformation, so we’re being very thoughtful,” he said at a joint hearing of the technology modernization subcommittee and disability assistance and memorial affairs subcommittee.
Under this modernization effort, VBA is looking to roll out automated data support tools that will deliver information — including a veteran’s medical exams and validation of military service — to a claims processor more quickly.
VBA is also launching automated data ingestion (ADI) tools that prepopulate information for benefits claims.
Robert Orifici, the director of VA’s Office of Information and Technology’s benefits and memorial systems portfolio, said about 400 VBA employees are currently using the ADI tool.
“ADI has been a success and getting functionality to the users quickly. It’s been a way of getting features into the hands to help them process claims faster and more efficiently,” he said.
Orifici said ADI currently functions as a browser extension, but the agency expects to deploy the tool to more employees this summer through fiscal 2024. He added that ADI’s features will eventually be built into the agency’s Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS).
“It is a browser extension, and so it is not meant to be as robust and long-lasting as something that’s built into the actual software,” he said.
VBA is also rolling out smart search tools that will make it much easier for VBA employees to search through a veteran’s file much faster.
Tellez said VBA under its modernization is looking to break VBMS into smaller pieces, which will allow the agency to modernize and upgrade smaller pieces of VBMS and work more diverse group of providers.
“We have come from a background, when VBMS first started, that this was one giant application. And so, to touch any component, you’re reworking all of VBMS to make sure that was working,” he said.
As part of this modernization effort, Tellez said VBA is decommissioning some of its legacy systems, and either modernizing them into new modules within VBMS or creating standalone modules.
Tellez said the modernization effort will reduce the need for employees to switch between tools, and will enable the future of working by bringing the data they need under one roof.
“Right now, it is very difficult to do that with some of the environment that’s still outstanding from our legacy updates. And so, within two years, the plan is really getting off those legacy components to enable that work,” Tellez said
David Bump, a VBA authorization quality review specialist in the Portland, Oregon regional office and a national representative for the American Federation of Government Employees’ National VA Council, said AFGE supports the use of technology to better VBA processors to do their jobs, but said the union is concerned about automation tools replacing VBA employees.
Bump said AFGE is urging lawmakers to take steps to ensure that all incoming veterans’ claims go through VA claims employees at some point, and that the process doesn’t become fully automated.
“It is important that our collective approach to the use of technology emphasizes that information technology supplement and not supplant the VBA’s workforce,” Bump said.
Bump said VBA employees are concerned about the reliability of VBMS, and that the system often crashes or requires rebooting, delaying claims processors for completing their work.
“Claims processors justifiably fear when the system goes down, that they may suffer consequences to the performance metrics, through no fault of their own,” Bump said.
Tellez said the agency addresses outages on a case-by-case basis.
“We have had some issues, but I’m not sure that I would say that there is a consistent trend for that to happen,” he said.
Bump said VBA isn’t granting employees enough “excluded time,” which is meant to account for the time when VBA employees can’t do their job because of system issues, or in some cases, extraordinarily complex claims.
“If a particular station has too much what they perceive to be too much or over a limit of excluded time that they grant, they have to answer for it. “If we’re not granted the appropriate amount of excluded time, to cover the time that we’ve lost due to system issues, the only negative effect to the employee is it’s harder to meet your performance standard.
Bump said VBA employees need a seat at the table when the agency plans to upgrade the tools they use. Under the current process, he said employees end up “beta testing” software, and telling supervisors about problems once new tools have launched.
“Every time VBMS gets upgrades, there are workarounds that result. And those workarounds, not only do you have to remember what all of them are, but they add to the time it takes to process a claim. Because you have to, in some cases, manipulate VBMS … You have to manipulate the system to get it to provide the right result,” Bump said.
Tellez said VBA holds weekly calls with employees at its 16 regional offices to gather feedback on its automation tools.
“The process that we have for deploying automated decision support tools has high quality. And we do have user frontline employees involved in that process,” he said.
VBA’s modernization plans also include improvements to the National Work Queue, a system that batches claims to the agency’s 16 regional offices.
“We have the opportunity to look at how can that work be distributed much more in an agile fashion than maybe we do today,” Tellez said.
Bump said the National Work Queue assigns work to a regional office, based on an algorithm that calculates how many employees work in that office.
From there, supervisors assign work to an individual employee’s work queue. But Bump said supervisors hold back some work, in case employees run out of claims to process.
Bump said opening up the National Work Queue would reduce the amount of time claims processors are sitting idle, waiting for their supervisor to assign additional work.
“What always seems to happen, though, is it doesn’t assign enough work to the office to keep folks busy throughout the day,” Bump said. “If we could open up the National Work Queue, so that employees have full access to what to all of the claims that are out there, you wouldn’t have to have all those steps, where an employee gets assigned not enough work to meet their performance standard on a given day, then they have to go back to their coach, their coach has to find work.”
Bump also urged VBA, as part of its modernization plans, to ensure a benefits claim stays within one regional office throughout processing. He said that under the current system, claims processors end up repeating some steps.
“We have a system where I could work on a claim in Portland, do what I need to do, send it back up, and then the claim goes to Pittsburgh, or Denver or St. Petersburg,” he said. “Every time that an employee touches a claim, they have to go through it from the beginning, because if there’s an error, and they don’t catch it, that’s their error. In order for employees to meet their performance metrics, and feel good about the job they’re doing and keeping their career, they have to almost rework a claim from the beginning, every time they touch it, to prevent getting an error.”