Wichita saw a slight improvement in its error rate, although it remained well above the VA’s goal. Its error rate improved from 12 percent to 11 percent during the year.
Wichita’s performance was better than some, easily topping the nation’s worst regional office, in Baltimore, which at the end of the year had a 26 percent error rate. The regional office that came closest to the VA’s goal was Lincoln, Neb., with an error rate of 4 percent.
In an interview last week, the VA said its ongoing transformation should eliminate many of the delays and errors veterans face.
Beth McCoy, who oversees 14 regional offices in the center of the country, said one part of the new system would allow a VA worker processing a claim to see all the necessary information on one computer dashboard rather than toggling among eight or 10 screens.
Another aspect of the reorganization involves routing certain types of claims into specialized “lanes” to move them through with dedicated reviewers.
Finally, the new paperless claims system will allow regional offices to share information quickly with other offices or VA medical centers. A lot of the problems the GAO identified “go away – the shipping files back and forth or between us and the hospital,” said Tom Murphy, the director of the VA’s compensation service. “A lot of the time that now goes to transporting files simply disappears.”
The first regional offices experimented with the new system in 2010 and 2011, and by the end of 2012, 18 offices were on it. By the end of this year, all 56 regional offices are expected to be using the new system.
Regional offices that switched over the earliest basically served as guinea pigs.
“We have phone calls daily with stations that are on” the new system,” McCoy said. “You fix one thing and something else comes up. . . . We have seen a lot of improvement. The system is operating faster, more reliably.”
While the GAO report said some of the VA’s processing problems were outside its control, some stem from staff shortages or inefficiency:
– The huge increase in Agent Orange claims sapped many regional offices. Officials in one office told the GAO that all claims-processing staff members were assigned solely to developing and rating Agent Orange claims for four months in 2011, meaning that no other new and pending claims were processed during that time.
– While nearly 2,000 new workers had been hired since 2009, about 50 percent of claims-processing staffers are green – on their current jobs less than two years, and often not yet fully proficient.
– Collecting medical and other records from the Department of Defense – particularly for National Guard and Reserve members – is a “systemwide challenge.”
– The paper-based claims processing system involves multiple handoffs, which may lead to misplaced and lost documents and may cause unnecessary delays.
– The lack of an integrated system requires staff to enter claim information multiple times and search through multiple systems for claim information.
McCoy said the GAO had reviewed the system when it was still being developed.
“We are really looking to fiscal year 2014 to turn the tide, to turn the corner, to make real gains,” she said.
The VA added in a statement that the new system is “constantly evolving to meet end-user needs, business requirements and performance benchmarks.”
One version of the system was released on Dec. 3, 2012, for example, but prompted concerns about its performance. Those concerns were addressed in a software patch two weeks later, and an updated version of the program deployed in late January “contained no critical defects,” the VA said.