House panel weighs complaints about VA’s system to process benefits claims

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Millions of veterans around the country receive disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which provides coverage for veterans with certain service-connected conditions.

These eligible conditions include traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cancers caused by contact with toxic chemicals and many other illnesses.

On Tuesday, members of a House subcommittee heard testimony about the challenges with the VA’s electronic database to process benefits claims known as the Veteran Benefits Management System (VBMS) under the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

“The system often crashes or requires rebooting, delaying claims processors from doing their required work,” said David Bump, National Representative for the National Veterans Affairs Council and the Second Vice President for VBA at Local 2157 in Portland, Oregon.

Lawmakers said employees have complained about the system errors forcing them to figure out work arounds.

“Claims examiners have repeatedly complained to us that VBA’s IT systems do not support the work that they do and frequently make their jobs even harder,” said Rep. Chris Pappas (D-NH).

Another big complaint is veterans having trouble reaching a real person when the system goes wrong.

“We are concerned about the negative effect on veterans of replacing human processors with technology,” said Bump.

“What are the triggers or key words that are being utilized to make sure that this thing gets rapidly transferred to a real person to deal with our veterans and what kind of time does that take to get them over to a real person?” asked Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT).

“I do not have an answer on hand for that and so I will have to take that back,” responded Robert Orifici, Director of Benefits and Memorial Systems Portfolio at the Office of Information & Technology for the VA.

Despite the challenges, the VA defended its system and said the technology modernization is a work in progress.

“IT modernization is an ongoing investment that will continue to beyond the five years allowing VA to shift its focus from veterans requesting help to VA providing a service,” said Raymond Tellez, Acting Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Automated Benefits Delivery at VBA. “I am confident in the system now. I think the process that we have for deploying automated support tools has high quality.”

Witnesses said getting it right is essential for the millions of those who served in need of these benefits.

“These are not entitlements,” said Bump. “These are benefits that are earned and we need to make the system work better.”

Testimony said the VA is expected to see an increase in the backlog of benefits claims next year because of the passage of the PACT Act, which expanded benefits for veterans.

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