VA’s paper chase

The Department of Veterans Affairs is transforming its processing system for disability claims into a paperless environment in an effort to reduce a claims backlog that has increased by about 180 percent since 2009.

Testifying before a congressional hearing on Dec. 4, Richard Dumancas of The American Legion said paperless programs such as the Veterans Benefit Management System (VBMS) and the Stakeholders Enterprise Portal “do offer a glimmer of hope.”

Dumancas, the Legion’s deputy director of benefits for its Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.

The hearing focused on the challenges of moving veterans’ records into a paperless environment. A key component of that process is scanning paper records into electronic files. Yet The American Legion recently learned that one of VA’s programs, Benefits Delivered at Discharge (BDD), currently has no contract for the scanning of its myriad paper records.

The Legion told Congress that such an oversight needs to be corrected because “new claims are building up behind this (lack of scanning) like a tidal wave behind a log jam.” VA also has no clear, public plan for dealing with the scanning component for VBMS, which the department is relying on heavily to help ease its backlog burden.

If claims files are not being processed because scanning contracts do not exist, the Legion is insisting that veterans need to be made aware of this oversight.

VA needs to improve its coordination of data and its communication with the Department of Defense, the Legion said, if the shift away from paper records is to succeed – especially with regard to National Guard and reserve members.

Guard and reserve medical records (critically important for the development of claims) often end up in several locations and can be difficult to track down. Proper accounting of these records must be a top priority for VA’s upcoming Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record.

“We understand that reserve members’ medical records can be split over multiple locations,” Dumancas said. “But one would want to believe that eventually they would meet up into one file. This process should be measured in days, not months or years.”

Since 9/11, more than 650,000 reserve and Guard members have deployed overseas, many of them attached to forces that are not their home units, further complicating medical record-keeping.
A paperless environment will still demand military records that are complete, and the Legion wants VA to improve its performance in correcting incomplete or missing records. VA’s Central Office in Washington needs to provide more precise direction and guidance for all of its employees, from regional office directors to entry-level workers.

While VA has several regulations that deal with absent or incomplete records, they seem to be applied unevenly at Regional Offices with varying results. The Legion told Congress that VA must enhance employee training for implementing its own records, and enforce consistency in the way claims are processed.

In its testimony, the Legion asked why some VA Regional Offices – Togus, Maine; St. Paul, Minn.; Fargo, N.D.; and Cheyenne, Wyo. – had about 30 percent of their claims inventory pending more than 125 days and classified as officially backlogged. Others – Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland, Calif.; and Roanoke, Va. – had between 74 and 87 percent of their claims in backlog.

“The (VA) Central Office should formulate a plan for the lower-inventory (Regional Offices) to mentor or provide best practices to the higher-inventory (Regional Offices),” Dumancas told the subcommittee. “Central Office needs to enforce the best practices and highly encourage all (Regional Offices) to follow the leaders. This is for the veteran. All veterans deserve the best service for their service.”

The American Legion has long-contended that training on all levels at an RO must be better-tailored to correct known deficiencies.

The American Legion also commented on the documentation of military sexual trauma (MST) in its testimony. Referring to VA’s recent guideline to concede the occurrence of stressor incidents when a diagnosis of PTSD exists, the Legion said the same concession should be extended to MST cases because victims have similar challenges in establishing the occurrence of stressors.

The American Legion recognizes VA’s own regulations for dealing with lost records as “indicative of the intent of this government to truly work to help veterans, even when – through no fault of their own – records are lost …. However, the implementation of these regulations still leaves much to be desired in terms of consistency ….”

Yet by improving training and enforcing consistency among its Regional Offices, the Legion said that VA “could go a long way toward helping the unfortunate veterans whose records have been lost or destroyed.”