VBMS deployment in 'full swing,' says VA official

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Despite early problems, rollout of the $537 million Veterans Benefits Management System is now in full swing, said Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits at VA during a March 13 hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

The system is now installed at 20 regional offices, another five will begin using the system next week and the department will fully deploy VBMS to all 56 sites by December 2013, said Hickey.

Deployment of the system will bring VA closer to its goal of eliminating its claims backlog entirely by 2015, said Hickey. Her testimony touted the improved processing speed delivered by VBMS and new training techniques that make claims processors more productive. Nonetheless, some senators pointed to the fact that claims pending more than 125 days have increased from 180,000 to 600,000 in the last three and a half years.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) requested VA provide the committee with monthly reports with raw data on the agency's progress in reducing the backlog--threatening to pursue legislation that would limit VA's funding should it not receive more detailed dashboards.

Hickey brought to the committee's attention several legislative changes that could help move the benefits claims process along. The department could shave 100 days off of the appeals process if it had a standard notice of disagreement form, said Hickey.

"Our veterans don't have a standard form to appeal with us that has all the information we need to identify that appeal. Frankly, we don't even know it's an appeal and we lose 100 days in the process of doing it," she said.

Hickey also requested authorization to stop sending some GI Bill information through the mail.

"I have 78 percent of our veterans who are taking the GI Bill who tell me today, 'Quit sending me the letter, just post it on eBenefits.' I still have a requirement to send them a letter," said Hickey.

Hickey said VA is doing a better job collaborating with agency partners, noting strong new relationships with the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.

"Social Security has now, and IRS, made the decision to give us access to current data every week rather than once a year," she said.

Since January, the Defense Department is providing VA with "100 percent certified, fully complete medical records."

"We've never had that in our history before. We've had to go look for those records. They're now going to give them to us," said Hickey.

Collaboration between DoD and VA on the Integrated Electronic Health Record was also mentioned briefly at the hearing.

In an effort to clarify a recent announcement that DoD and VA are settling for interoperability rather than full integration, Stephen Warren, acting assistant secretary at VA's office of information technology, said VA is still fully committed to a single, joint iEHR.

"The announcement that I think was misconstrued was that because some progress had not been happening at the pace that it needed to, we threw some accelerators in there," he said.

The interagency program office is committed to taking Janus, the interface the departments use to access both systems, and roll it out to seven more sites by July 31, said Warren.

"Mr. Warren I read the release that was put out jointly. Your interpretation is not what I read," said Burr. 

"DoD's headed for a totally separate system. There's no assurance that it's going to be integrated in a way that will talk to VA. As a matter of fact, there's every reason to believe that if you talk to the DoD folks, there's no plans to have a seamless, single system," he added.

For more:
- go to the hearing page (includes archived webcast and prepared testimony)

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