Fully electronic veterans’ benefits claims, a necessary ingredient for the Obama administration to fulfill its pledge to eliminate the claims backlog by the end of 2015, is showing only modest results in initial stages. But Veterans Affairs Department officials are optimistic about the future.
“I feel confident in the system,” said Alan Bozeman, program manager for the Veterans Benefits Management System, at a Tuesday demonstration of electronic claims processing.
With only 6,000 fully electronic benefits claims filed so far, the new system is only about 10 percent faster than the old paper claims system, VA officials said. This is hardly the next-generation development needed to move the mountain of 878,000 claims — including 592,900 that are older than the 125-day processing goal — that are pending before VA this week.
Electronic claims are not the only proposed solution to the claims backlog; it’s just one of 40 initiatives aimed at cutting the backlog, said Tommy Sowers, VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs.
However, electronic claims — filed by a veteran or on behalf of a veteran, and supported by electronic service records and electronic medical records from DoD, VA and sometimes private physicians — are one of the big leaps forward that could not just shorten processing time but also improve accuracy.
Now receiving about 800 new electronic claims a week and having converted about 18 percent of pending paper claims to electronic files, VA officials said they expect the 10 percent gain in efficiency to grow.
But there are still problems to overcome. The current system can be difficult to use for those with few computer skills, and only 600 of the 8,000 veterans service officers certified to help file veterans’ claims are fully versed in the system.
VA officials are hopeful about the Defense Department’s requirement that active-duty troops be enrolled in VA’s eBenefits system to enroll or make changes in Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, to apply for a veterans home loan or to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to a spouse or children.
While disability claims can be electronically filed, they do not yet generate a request for military records that are likely to be required for a claim to be decided. It is possible for a veteran to attach electronic copies of records they might have in support of the claim, but scanning large documents requires skills and equipment that not all veterans have.
Once ratings specialists get training and experience on the system, they tell VA leaders they don’t want to go back to paper, VA officials said. Yet the software that helps them calculate disability ratings is not yet compatible with the electronic claims, meaning a rater must scan a veteran’s records looking for information. For example, on a post-traumatic stress claim, a rater needs to look for evidence of anxiety, depression, a lack of motivation and mood disorders.
VA plans to someday create examination questionnaires where the key issues needed for a rating are all in one list, and to allow the rating calculator to scan files, making ratings decisions less subjective.
Efficiency and accuracy should improve as VA raters and veterans’ service officers become more experienced in the system, officials said.
VA doesn’t expect paper claims to vanish completely, Bozeman said. Some veterans simply aren’t comfortable filing electronically. “We still take paper. We still take claims over the phone,” he said.