With help from USDS, VA improves benefits appeals tracking tool

VA headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/ NCinDC)

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The process for veterans to appeal an unsatisfying benefits decision is a long one. There are currently about 460,000 pending appeals, and it takes at least five to seven years for the Board of Veterans’ Appeals to receive, review and make a call on the petition.

And sometimes, during that time, veterans feel like they’ve been forgotten — like their paperwork has simply disappeared into, in the words of one veteran, an impenetrable “black hole.”

A new web tool, built by the U.S. Digital Service team at the Department of Veterans Affairs, aims to give veterans more insight into this process.

The Appeals Status tool is an improved version of what came before, and it promises to show veteran users exactly where they are in the appeals process, what — if anything — needs to be done next and how long they can expect it to take.

“It’s important that our Veterans have the opportunity to track their appeals process in a timely and efficient manner,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a statement. “For the first time ever, Veterans can see their place on the Board of Veterans’ Appeals’ docket, including the number of appeals that are ahead of them.”

The tool went live on the Vets.gov website March 21.

Chris Given, the product lead for the updated Appeals Status tool, told FedScoop that previously veterans had only “limited information about the status of their appeal, obtained via VA’s eBenefits website or by calling VA hotlines.” Some veterans the team spoke with in the design process, he said, did this every day. The problem with this, though, was that the eBenefits site didn’t provide a lot of detail on what was happening behind the scenes: “appeal pending,” it would say, sometimes for years.

This notification was “presented without a lot of context and can remain unchanged for years at a time,” he said. “When you might wait years between updates, it can feel like anyone’s guess whether VA’s forgotten about you.”

Now, veterans see a “progress bar” showing the status of their appeal.

“We have data, updated daily, on the total number of appeals on the docket and the number that are ahead of yours,” Given said. “We visualize this as a progress bar, one that’s a good bit slower moving than you might be accustomed to, but an important reassurance that your appeal hasn’t been lost and is indeed getting closer to a decision. I mentioned that there are hundreds of thousands of appeals pending, so these are kind of scary numbers. But the response from the veterans we showed this feature to has been super positive.”

As is USDS custom, the user experience team, for this project led by Gina Kim, strives to “build with users, not for users” — the design of the tool is the result of months of interviews with veterans and their families, Given said. One user who participated in these conversations, Jeffrey, told USDS that he likes the new tool because “there’s a lot more information.”

He also said that he likes the honesty about just how long these things take. The tool doesn’t try to shield you, he said, “from what they know or where they’re at or how long it might take. So that provides a level of comfort.”

The Appeals Status tool might be useful to veterans, but that’s not the only reason for its existence. In August 2017 Congress passed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, which has the potential to make way for fast reviews, Given said —but it also creates a more complex system for veterans to navigate. The law is expected to go into effect in Feb. 2019 and the VA is hurrying to get ready.

“Appeals Status is laying the groundwork to get veterans the information they need to make those [more complex] choices,” Given told FedScoop. “It can show you how long each option is taking, describe clearly what each entails, and make clear what VA is asking you to do and the deadlines you have to meet.”

And while the Appeals Status tool is new, USDS work on appeals at VA is not. The organization has had a team on the ground since late 2015, Given said, working on modernizing an old system and old processes.

“Behind the scenes, we’ve now shipped eight products that are used by VA employees as they work appeals,” he told FedScoop.

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Department of Veterans Affairs, IT Modernization, U.S. Digital Service
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