Last summer, while standing outside the audiology clinic at the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, I noticed a Veteran looking somewhat anxious and a little confused. When I asked him if I could be of any assistance, he explained to me that he was completely deaf in one ear, had significant hearing loss in his other ear, and was in desperate need of hearing aids. However, he could not afford them and was hoping VA could help.
Staff at VA’s audiology clinic recommended the Veteran file a VA disability compensation claim for his hearing loss. If granted service connection for the disability, VA would provide hearing aids free of charge. The Veteran was unsure how to begin the process of filing a VA disability claim. As a team lead for the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) at the Salt Lake City VA Regional Office I knew just where he should start. Together, we began the process of applying for disability compensation using VA’s new online process.
VBMS is one of the new tools we are using to help process Veterans claims faster and with less errors. One of a variety of technology solutions we are implementing, VBMS is a web-based, electronic claims processing portal created to give VA the ability to process Veterans’ claims paper-free. It is helping us move from a paper-based claims process to a digital one. Think more “IRS e-filing” and less “photos of stacks of Veterans claims files.” Using VBMS and, eBenefits, our online portal for Veterans, we now have the tools needed to become paper-free.
VBMS allows our claims processors to do many things automatically that we used to do manually, making our workforce more efficient.
Using VBMS, we can now digitize a Veteran’s claim-related evidence into an electronic file (or format) and send it quickly along from claims processors and medical examiners located offsite.
Our employees spend less time searching for and transferring paper records and can spend more time processing Veterans claims. In essence, all the relevant information about a Veteran’s claim is available instantly to all VA employees working on the claim.
In this particular case, the Veteran filed his claim May 2, 2012. By using VBMS, we were able to complete it July 18, 2012, for a total processing time of 78 days. The Veteran was granted service connection for his hearing loss, and received hearing aids at no charge from VA shortly after. The national average to process a claim using the paper-based method is 272 days (as of December 12, 2012).
In the paper-based system, I would have expedited this Veteran’s claim given his history. Doing so would have required an employee to hand carry the paper file and verbally inform the audiology clinic of the expedited nature of the case. However, with VBMS, I was able to electronically track, prioritize and transfer claim-related information in real-time– allowing me to divert employee resources to processing other Veterans’ claims rather than creating foot traffic to move a paper folder.
Transitioning to a paperless system is much more complex than one may think, especially for an organization as large as VA. We will face technological and human challenges along the way. Even as we start to implement VBMS at all processing locations (it’s currently being used at 18 regional offices and is scheduled to be at all 56 by the end of 2013), we are tweaking it and making improvements behind the scenes. At the end of the day, VBMS, along with a wide range of additional improvements in business processes we are also implementing, will help enable employees to process claims faster and more accurately.
It will take time to fully transform VA into a more efficient electronic organization, but the transformation from a paper-intensive process, rooted in World War II to an electronic environment worthy of today’s and future Veterans is a big step in the right direction. VBMS will provide immeasurable benefit in improving employee efficiency and thus, providing better service to our nation’s Veterans.
Jim Thomas is a Supervisory Veterans Service Representative and is a Team Lead for VBMS Transformation at the Salt Lake City Regional Office. He has worked for VA for 8 years and is an Army Veteran.