In one afternoon, the Veterans Affairs Department announced a new web portal to make disability claims entirely electronic and got an approving, $20 million nod from Senate lawmakers.
On June 18, VA announced eBenefits, a website that allows the public to file claims electronically. The system is integrated with the Veterans Benefits Management System, and sends claims directly to the database. It’s part of the agency’s goal to both eliminate the robust disability claims backlog and make the claims process completely paperless.
Paper submissions will still be accepted, but might take longer to process, as VA will start scanning all paper claims into the just-announced system.
“There are so many advantages to making this move from paper to digital — for both veterans and VA,” Allison Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, said in statement. “Veterans can now file their claims online through eBenefits like they might do their taxes online.”
But the new filing system comes with a cost. And Tuesday, the Senate took the first step to rubber stamp the spending. The Senate Appropriations Committee panel handling VA funding tacked $20 million onto VA’s 2014 budget request, indicating the extra money was earmarked for additional hardware to support the Veterans Benefits Management System.
The panel also approved an additional $10 million for overtime pay and training for claims processors. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said it was all part of the 10-point plan to eliminate the VA claims backlog.
“Our committee insisted on a sense of urgency and a fire in the belly to get the job done,” Mikulski said in a statement. “The result is the 10-point action plan to end the backlog included in this bill. It’s progress. But more needs to be done.”
At the beginning of this week, VA had 840,898 claims pending; 66 percent of those have languished for more than 125 days. The 10-point plan also calls on VA to boost its capacity to ingest all electronic health records from the Defense Department and increase its monthly and quarterly performance data reporting to Congress.
The VA IT funding outlined by the Senate — $3.7 billion — is roughly $20 million above the level requested by the White House, and allocates a total of $119.4 million for to improve the benefits management system. An additional $251.9 million would be earmarked for integrating electronic health records from DOD.
The total amount also surpasses the House-approved VA budget, which means any negotiation between the two houses could negate the Senate’s earmarks in the final budget.