Veterans looking to receive compensation for service-connected disabilities can now use a self-service online tool developed by the U.S. Digital Service team at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The new tool, built in partnership by the digital team (DSVA), the VA’s Office of Information Technology and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), aims to make it easier for veterans to submit disability claims to the agency. And it comes with a side benefit for all involved: It’s reportedly decreasing the overall adjudication times for claims.
The Disability Compensation Claim Tool is a new digital front end for the form 526EZ, a deeply bureaucratic 12-page document that begins with seven pages of instructions. In it, veterans are called upon to describe their service-connected injuries neatly and in a small table — a process that can be as taxing as it is confusing.
The new digital version is designed such that veterans can “get through the process easily and understand what’s happening,” Andrea Schneider, product lead at DSVA, told FedScoop in an interview. It’s not just an online version of the old paper form — it’s a revamped experience that guides veterans through the process, asking user-friendly questions and using the answers to populate a regular 526EZ on the backend. In a sense, the tool works to translate the kind of plain language a veteran would use into the bureaucratic officialese that claims adjudicators require.
“We don’t need the veteran to be an expert in our administrative processes,” Paul Shute, chief of operational innovation at the VBA’s Compensation Service, told FedScoop.
As always, DSVA emphasized user-centered design in building the tool, talking with “hundreds” of veterans to unveil their needs and testing an early version of the tool beginning in August 2018, the team said. The final version, which fully launched in March, is the culmination of about two years of “solid, dedicated effort,” Schneider told FedScoop.
“It’s been a labor of love,” she added.
But the tool isn’t just easier — it’s also faster. Before launch, the average disability claims processing time was somewhere between 108 and 120 days (FedScoop got differing feedback on this). The majority of that time, Shute told FedScoop, was spent gathering evidence — often in a back-and-forth between the veteran and the adjudicator. The new tool’s use of conditional logic and data integration has already managed, on average, to cut that time in half, the team said. Since March, there have been more than 10,000 claims submissions sent through the tool.
“It’s been an incredible project,” Schneider said. “It’s been impactful from a service perspective, feeling like we’re really able to touch people’s lives and make them a little bit better.”
The new tool is the latest in the VA’s continued focus on putting its veteran “customers” first. In November 2018 the agency launched a new version of VA.gov, one that puts veteran service front and center. And in May the agency officially added customer experience to its “Core Values and Characteristics” — the guidelines in the the Code of Federal Regulations that define priorities of VA employees as well as what the agency stands for.
“We depend on Veterans, their caregivers, and our business partners to help us form the vision of an improved Veteran experience,” James Gfrerer, CIO at the VA, said in a statement emailed to FedScoop. “Human-centered design, powered by IT, is transforming VA.”