Veterans records go electronic
In 1998, when Frank Kush was a management analyst in the Houston regional office of the Veterans Affairs Department, the agency's new offices were not created primarily with technology or people in mind.
"We would basically design our offices around the point at which there was the most area to be able to house file cabinets, and we would build the people around the paper," said Kush, now a program manager for compensation and pension services at VA.
"Paper creates a number of challenges when you're trying to manage it," he said. "If one office is shut down, all the paperwork for those veterans is locked in that office. It really limits our ability to do our jobs effectively."
In early 2001, the agency launched a pilot project to transform its heavily paper-based benefits system into an electronic one. The Virtual VA program focuses on processing veterans' claims for benefits.
The system, which enables the creation, storage and access of documents, is built on FileNet Corp.'s FileNet P8 and Image Manager, said Bill Cull, FileNet's vice president for government solutions.
"For many years, VA had been administering pensions for all of its veterans in a paper-based world, so when someone would call or write VA with a question, workers were literally retrieving paper documents and files," Cull said. Many times, the agency would have to call back the vet to get more information, which, in some cases, would take a couple more weeks, he said.
Because anyone who served in the military potentially can receive benefits over his or her lifetime, the volume of records on veterans is massive. The systems integrator on the project, BearingPoint Inc. of McLean, Va., had to take records from different areas of the military as well as VA, and aggregate them into one master file to let veterans and department officials access the information.
Unlike insurance companies, which discretely process each claim, VA examines each claim in the context of a person's whole history. When a veteran files a claim for a back condition, VA officials look at the vet's entire medical history throughout his military career, in addition to any treatment information received since being discharged. All of that information is used in determining eligibility for benefits. Other data, such as marriage certificates and service records, are also in the files.
"If you look at collecting this over a lifetime, one file can get to be voluminous, let alone the amount of files we have to maintain," VA's Kush said. "Most veterans who do apply for benefits are repeat customers. Their disabilities worsen over time, and they apply for increases in benefits, or they seek additional assistance from us."
About 5,000 VA employees across the country work with veterans over the phone, FileNet's Cull said. The agency now uses Virtual VA, which is Web-based and lets benefits administrators pull up all relevant documents and information on each veteran who calls.
"You can imagine the change in customer service, going from weeks to literally seconds for a person to look up a file," Cull said. "And if a change needs to be made or a change in benefits occurs, they can also do that immediately through the application."
FileNet, working with VA and BearingPoint, phased in Virtual VA to test the system and add documents as they went along. They initially scanned about 2 million documents, including VA's backlog of 600,000 documents. Another 1 million documents were added in 2004. FileNet Image Manager provides document management standardization across Virtual VA's back-end servers.
VA officials also wanted to be able to put files through a workflow application. For example, now if a change occurs in a beneficiary's case, they can make that change using FileNet. Many changes can now be made on the fly.
"All that requires logic and workflow, so FileNet holds the content but it also moves the content around the organization with pre-built rules and logic," Cull said. "It knows who needs to look at which modifications, and what systems need to be updated once a change has been made. If you have to send a letter because of the change, that letter will automatically be generated."
"People are so used to working around paper, they almost organize themselves around the in-boxes on their desks." | Terry Speegle, BearingPoint
Today Virtual VA focuses on benefits, but its success has interested VA officials in extending it to other areas, like claims.
BearingPoint has a long history of working with FileNet, so there were no great technology challenges in that regard, said Terry Speegle, managing director of health services at BearingPoint.
"The most critical challenge was the change management implications," Speegle said. "People are so used to working around paper, they almost organize themselves around the in-boxes on their desks."
BearingPoint worked with VA employees, unions and associations to help usher in the new technology.
Working in a complex organization with a large number of technology systems proved a challenge. Throughout the upgrade to the new system, BearingPoint had to keep all the VA benefits programs running.
"There were a great many regression tests and a great many integration tests to make sure everything always kept moving," Speegle said. "You can't ever really be down, you always have to be serving veterans every day."
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