Shutdown curtails VA software development

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has halted all software development and furloughed 2,754 IT workers as part of the government shutdown.

That includes work on its $491 million paperless Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) to reduce the VA's massive backlog of claims. It also furloughed 7,000 employees from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) who process claims, and shuttered its 56 regional offices.

The VA Office of Information & Technology employs 8,010 workers, with the bulk of them to remain on the job under exceptions for protection of life and property, according to the agency's contingency plan.

Their work will include direct and indirect support to administrations and staff offices; network maintenance and protection; information security; data center operations; and enterprise infrastructure operations.

However, the VA had been touting its progress in reducing the claims backlog. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has repeatedly cited the VBMS as key to reducing the backlog. Stephen Warren, the department's acting chief information officer, told reporters on Sept. 26, that the VA was still enhancing the VBMS through software patches, according to Nextgov. However, carryover funds from the 2013 budget that might have kept that work going have been exhausted.

Speaking to the House VA Committee on Wednesday, Shinseki said that if the shutdown lasts through late October, disability, pension, compensation and education payments to veterans will be cut off.

The VBA was able to keep 13,000 workers on through carryover funds, but those will run out at the end of the month, and all but 1,500 employees would then be furloughed.

The backlog, which stood at 611,000 claims in March, was down by 20 percent--to 496,000 claims--as of Aug. 9, President Barack Obama said. Claims processors, however, have said that performance standards and bonuses favor speed over accuracy, which has led to a glut of errors.

To learn more:
- read the Nextgov article
- check out Shinseki's comments via a VA blog
- here's the contingency plan (.pdf)