VA drowning in benefits backlog despite expensive paperless system

Despite spending $491 million on a paperless Veterans Benefits Management System, the Department of Veterans Affairs has only installed the system--which has processed a meager 800 claims--in four offices, Gerald Manar, deputy director of the National Veterans Service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Tuesday, according to Nextgov.

The VA's only hope for digging out from a massive backlog of benefits claims was "to get out of the paper world and into the digital world," lawmakers were told in January. So far, it's been slow going.

The number of number of backlogged claims stands at 913,690, with about 66 percent (575,773) taking more than 125 days to process--more than three times the number two years ago, according to Nextgov. The VA's goal has been to process disability claims within 125 days--and with 98 percent accuracy--by 2015.

The new claims process was described as being similar to online tax-preparation software that guides users through with an interview-style interface. Nationwide rollout of the new system was scheduled to begin this summer and continue into next year. Some lags in calling up files, however, have raised concerns about those efforts.

To go fully paperless, the VA would need 4,000 more workers to scan its billions of pages of paper benefit claims, William Bosanko, a top executive at the National Archives and Records Administration, told the House committee. NARA has performed sophisticated scanning operations for the department at five sites for the past two years under contracts valued at $9.7 million, but has suggested the VA turn the work over to a private contractor, according to a second Nextgov article.

With nearly 230,000 disability claims related to Agent Orange now finalized, processing should speed up, VA officials said. But there are plenty of skeptics, according to a Stars and Stripes report.

Meanwhile, the VA's own employees have called out the agency for its inefficiency. Ahead of the hearing, claims workers at the VA regional office in Columbia, S.C., planned to planned to protest all the bureaucracy and lack of accountability in the claims process, according to the New York Times.

Delays seem to be a way of life within the VA. A patient scheduling system has been blamed in part for falsified data showing that 95 percent of patients who sought mental health care in 2011 received an appointment within two weeks. In actuality, the wait averaged 50 days for 94,000 patients.

And only five of 55 VA medical clinics approved by Congress since 1998 have been completed. Three out of the four VA hospitals under construction in Orlando, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Denver are more than a year behind schedule.

To learn more:
- read the Nextgov article
- and this report on scanning
- here's the Star and Stripes report
- check out this New York Times article