By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 2, 2012 – Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki says VA is on track toward meeting one of the top priorities he set on arrival at the department three years ago: breaking the back of the disability claims backlog.
VA spent the last two years creating an automated tool to make claims determinations faster and more accurate, he said.
"Our intent is to have no claim over 125 days," Shinseki told American Forces Press Service. "And every claims decision that we put out the door [will be] at a 98-percent quality mark."
Toward that end, VA has been testing the new Veterans Benefit Management System in Providence, R.I., and Salt Lake City. Shinseki told Congress last month he believes this technology is helping VA "approach the tipping point in ending the backlog in disability claims."
He stopped by the Salt Lake City office last week to assess progress there as the department prepares to take the system nationwide beginning this fall. The rollout will begin at 16 regional offices in September, with all 56 VA regional offices to receive it by the end of fiscal 2013, Shinseki said.
This advance is expected to go a long way in helping VA reduce the time veterans must wait for disability claims decisions, the secretary said.
"We know we can do it manually," Shinseki said. "But we plan to layer this automation tool on top of that, and have the people who did the manual work now armed with an automation tool. I think we will be able to improve our productivity in ways that we will be able to take that backlog down quickly."
Shinseki noted the monumental challenge VA has been up against. During 2009, VA produced 900,000 claims decisions, but also received 1 million new claims. The next year, VA increased its claims decisions to 1 million, but received 1.2 million new claims.
"Last year, we produced another 1 million claims decisions and got 1.3 million claims in," Shinseki said. "So the backlog isn’t static. The backlog is a bigger number than we would like, but it is not the same number as three years ago."
Once the automated system is in place, Shinseki said, he believes the 125-day, 98-percent accuracy goals he set are achievable. "There is a lot on the line here," he said. "And that is why this rollout in September is an important one."
His confidence, he said, comes from the successes he’s seen automation bring to VA’s processing of Post-9/11 GI Bill claims.
Shinseki recalled arriving at VA in 2009 just as the new program was being launched and having to implement it on the fly, with no automation tools. Within about nine months, he said, VA was able to prepare the manual process of getting about 173,000 people into schools by the fall 2009 term.
"It was pretty rocky," he acknowledged.
But today, with the process now automated, VA is able to process more than 600,000 Post-9/11 GI Bill claims faster, and with fewer mistakes, the secretary said. That experience demonstrated the importance of keeping manual processing going as automation is being rolled in, then gradually moving all the processes toward automation, he added.
"The lessons we got out of that were tremendously important," he said. "It educated our efforts with the automation tool for the [disability] claims process, and we are doing the same things, step-by-step, that we learned how to do through with the [Post-9/11 GI
The new system is just one initiative VA has taken to break the claims backlog.
Another effort focuses on fundamentally changing the relationship between veterans and VA, making VA an advocate in putting together a strong claims package. VA began giving veterans a checklist of what’s needed to file a claim, and also did its own digging to produce whatever documentation veterans couldn’t find. This effort reduces the time needed to put a claims package together.
Another pilot program focuses on making claims processing more efficient by simplifying the process and improving communication among the entities that process a claim to reduce procedural delays, the secretary said.
Shinseki said he wanted to focus on getting the bugs out of the claims process before increasing automation.
"We didn’t want to automate bad processes and just get lousy decisions faster," he told a Paralyzed Veterans of America gathering. "So we broke the complex, convoluted claims process down into its component pieces to improve each part before putting them back together."