Veterans claims remain snarled despite a $200 million computer upgrade : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Veterans claims remain snarled despite a $200 million upgrade

Friday, March 17, 2000 By LARRY MARGASAK


WASHINGTON - Despite spending more than $200 million to upgrade its computers, the agency that distributes compensation for 3.2 million veterans and their survivors takes longer to process claims than it did a decade ago, according to records and interviews.

With more than a half million veterans expected to die this year - some while awaiting final resolution of claims - a modern, computerized system was considered essential to track cases, reduce backlogs and provide applicants with current information.

But the Veterans Benefits Administration still maintains hundreds of pages of paper in a typical file and takes an average of 205 days to complete an original disability claim, compared with 164 in 1991, an Associated Press review found.

"After hundreds of millions of dollars spent over the past 10 years on VA computer modernization for processing veterans claims, there has been no tangible return for the veteran or the taxpayer," said Rep. Terry Everett, Republican of Alabama, whose House Veterans Affairs subcommittee is investigating what he describes as "terrible" service to disabled veterans.

The director of VBAs disability compensation and benefit programs, Robert Epley, acknowledged attempts to upgrade computers have gone through "fits and starts" and bounced along without a long-term plan.

But he promised dramatic changes within two years in the programs that dispense $22 billion a year in disability payments to veterans. The agency also distributes pension benefits to eligible survivors of veterans.

He pledged new computer systems, operated by a better trained workforce, and a reduction in errors. Currently, the agency errs on about a third of claims. About 8 percent of the errors involve improper benefit amounts.

"Teams are forming who will understand the responsibility of processing claims efficiently, telling veterans not just that we got it [the claim], but heres what we see, heres what we expect, heres an estimate of what its going to take" to get a decision, he explained.

The VBA, which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, says it spent $238 million since 1991 for hardware, software, contractors and the salaries of VA employees.

The review found that despite the spending:

Most information in a veterans file is still on paper. Of 58 regional service centers, only the office where a claim was filed has full access to case records and is able to provide a complete picture of a beneficiarys status.

A computer program called VETSNET, which was supposed to unite all the VAs diverse agencies from loans to health care to cemeteries to benefits, has achieved only limited links. VBA caseworkers are saddled with antiquated programs, which date to before the advent of Microsoft Windows.

The old software prevents them from quickly maneuvering through a veterans file. Unable to point-and-click with a mouse, they have to painstakingly scroll through one screen at a time.

About three years ago, the benefits agency announced a dramatic drop in the time it took to process claims to 133 days. But the VA inspector general, the agencys internal watchdog, concluded in 1998 that the agency had simply manipulated the numbers to make them look better.

)2000 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.

-- Carl Jenkins (, March 17, 2000

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