With 46 of 58 Department of Veterans Affairs regional offices now capable of handling electronic disability claims, efficiency has increased by about 10 percent, VA officials said.
A department official who spoke with reporters Tuesday did not dispute that a 10 percent increase was small when considering the VA claims backlog is about 600,000, but suggested it should improve significantly as more paper claims are converted to electronic files and more new applications start out as e-files.
The VA outlined the new system for reporters during a background meeting in Washington on Tuesday.
The VA has scanned more than 100 million documents for conversion to electronic files as part of its ambitious Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS). While that process continues, it has also begun accepting fully electronic claims applications. Those began in February, when Marine veteran Phillip Walker completed the first-ever fully electronic claim with the help of a Disabled American Veteran counselor in Fairfax, Va.
Walker believes his Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease stems from his military service, according to the DAV, which featured Walker in a report on the inaugural e-claim.
Jim Marszalek, deputy national service director for the DAV, told Military.com that Walker’s claim demonstrated the efficiency of the VBMS.
“It was done entirely online,” Marszalek said. “We could track it [online]. A week or so later, we could see it in Atlanta. It was there. That claim is now completed and he has been compensated. ... It was a success story, that’s for sure.”
Walker’s claim was approved about the end of April or early May, meaning well within the 125 days that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki established as the acceptable time for a claim to be acted upon. About 600,000 claims are past that period, with some stretching well over a year.
The VBMS, which is estimated to cost the VA nearly $500 million, has had its bumps, however.
Only last month, it was taken off line for a time after claims officials across the country found themselves being knocked out of the system. VA officials said the problem was a glitch with the ratings tool -- a series of menus that allow raters to insert into the claim forum diagnoses supported by medical documentation -- following a system update.
The VA has regularly updated the system or provided patches to it in the roughly six months since it began fielding it.
VA officials continue to maintain the department is on track to eliminate the backlog by 2015, a goal that some lawmakers and veterans groups view with skepticism. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has consistently expressed doubt that the VA can achieve that goal when the backlog has actually increased in some months.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have been pressing the White House to establish a presidential commission to end the backlog.
The administration has not established a commission, but earlier this month it proposed a 13.5 percent increase in VA funding for handling claims, bringing that part of the department’s budget to $2.5 billion for next year.
At DAV, Marszalek said he remains “optimistic at this point -- cautiously optimistic” that VBMS will significantly increase claims production as the number of new, electronic claims increases and as paper is converted to electronic forms.
“We know that when VBMS is deployed to regional offices things do slow down -- it’s new, it’s change. People have to get up and running [on it] without losing production,” he said.