American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – The Veterans Affairs Department is on solid footing to meet ambitious goals of improving access to care and services, eliminating the disability claims backlog and eradicating homelessness among veterans, a senior VA official said.
It’s also on track in working with the Defense Department to roll out a single, joint, integrated electronic health record, VA Deputy Assistant Secretary Tommy Sowers said during an interview last month.
Access has increased dramatically, with more than half of an estimated 22 million living veterans receiving at least one VA benefit or service, he noted.
Sowers attributed the increase of more than 1 million in the past four years to new facilities, mobile clinics and vet centers in remote areas and investments in telemedicine and social media to connect more veterans to VA services and programs.
Sowers noted that 56 percent of the 1.5 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have used VA health care, compared to 35 percent of the veteran population. In addition, almost 1 million veterans are taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
“One thing we are finding is that people like our product,” Sowers said.
In developments toward eliminating the claims backlog, VA has announced it is expediting compensation claims decisions for veterans who have waited one year or longer.
Claims raters will now make provisional decisions on the oldest claims on hand. This, officials said, will allow veterans who are eligible for compensation benefits to begin collecting them more quickly.
VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said the new procedure will help to reduce unacceptable delays as VA moves forward with “an aggressive plan” to eliminate the claims backlog in 2015.
Meanwhile, VA is continuing to roll out technology that’s key toward reaching that goal and reducing the time required to process disability claims, Sowers said.
An automated tool now deployed to half of VA’s claims offices, and slated to roll out at the others by the year’s end, is cutting claims processing times dramatically, he reported.
The Veterans Benefits Management System has been installed at 25 of the 56 regional offices, speeding up processing of disability claims, he said. The VA budget request for fiscal year 2014 includes $291 million in technology to address the claims backlog, with $155 million of that dedicated to the next-generation electronic claims processing system.
VA’s goal, Sowers said, is to integrate people, process and technology initiatives to eliminate the backlog by 2015 and to process claims in less than 125 days at 98 percent accuracy.
While improving claims processing, the new technology also is expected to improve automated benefit payments to veterans participating in the Post-9/11 GI Bill education program, VA officials said. VA now is able to provide benefit payments to currently enrolled students in an average of six days, they reported.
Meanwhile, VA is working with DOD to establish a single, joint integrated electronic health record that will remain with service members throughout their military careers and into retirement or transition to civilian life. The goal, Sowers said, is to have it interoperable by next year and fully integrated by 2017.
In a step toward that goal, VA is investing up to $550 million in DOD’s Transition Assistance Program to fund separating service members’ exit physicals.
The rationale, Shinseki explained earlier this year to the Marine Corps League, is to establish a baseline physical for the rest of the veteran’s life. This also will help VA to identify and be prepared to serve those with service-connected physical or mental issues before they leave the military.
VA and DOD have spent the past four years strengthening their partnership, and Shinseki and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are committed to building on that progress, he said. Sowers noted that Hagel served as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration under then-president Ronald Reagan, helping to pioneer early electronic health recordkeeping.
While tackling these issues – both heavily reliant on systems processes and technology – VA is continuing its efforts to eliminate homelessness among veterans by 2015.
Sowers reported 62,000 homeless veterans, down from more than 100,000 four years ago. “We have seen good progress on this, with a 17-percent reduction,” he said.
Much of that drop has come through VA’s close partnerships across the interagency spectrum, particularly with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Sowers said.
HUD provides rental assistance vouchers for homeless veterans through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, he said.
VA, in turn, provides case management and clinical services through its medical centers and community-based outreach clinics.
Sowers noted that confronting homelessness means more than simply providing a roof over veterans’ heads.
“One of the key things that we know is that if a veteran has a job, if they have education, if they have health care, they are dramatically less likely to be homeless,” he said.
“So the way the secretary likes to think about this is through offensive and defensive measures” that not only rescue those on the streets, but also prevent a largely invisible at-risk population from entering the downward spiral that leads to homelessness, Sowers added.
That ranges from helping veterans find affordable housing and intervening to protect more than 10,000 veterans from premature foreclosures to offering employment programs and health care programs.
The issue circles around to access, and increasing awareness among veterans about programs and services available to them, Sowers said.
He acknowledged that eliminating homelessness among veterans will be increasingly challenging.
“We know that some of the hardest cases are still out there, and that as we get closer to zero, there will always be more folks going into homelessness,” Sowers said. “But the key will be to get them out as quickly as possible.”
Shinseki acknowledged during congressional testimony earlier last month that the goals he has set for VA are complex and challenging.
“These were bold and ambitious goals four years ago, and they remain bold and ambitious goals today,” the secretary told the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on military construction, veterans affairs, and related agencies.
But Shinseki said it’s a commitment the United States owes those who have served in uniform.
“Veterans deserve a VA that advocates for them and then puts the resources behind the promises it’s made,” Shinseki concluded.