The Veterans Affairs Department has spent $273 million trying to go from paper to digital claims, but it's off to a bumpy start. In fact, veterans claims sent digitally are being processed more slowly than the traditional way.
That's the finding of a new investigative report by the VA's inspector general that provides a stark looks at the flaws in a project that was supposed to speed, not slow, veterans' benefits.
The Veterans Benefits Management System "experienced a number of performance issues including system failures, slowness and errors in generating notification letters for veterans," the inspector general said in an investigative report.
The program so far has cost $273 million, and officials said they plan to spend an additional $92 million by October.
The goal of the Veterans Benefits Administration was to become completely paperless and "minimize rating inconsistencies and errors, and mishandling of veterans’ claims information," the investigators said. "More importantly, VBA anticipated that its transformation, which included paperless processing, would result in a 45 to 60 percent increase in productivity while improving quality."
But investigators found that VA officials hadn't done the proper testing on the software, including running "not realistic" scenarios and failing to get a clear goal of some of the demands that would be placed on the software.
As a result, the new computer system has slowed down the process considerably. Federal employees told investigators it use to take four minute to input a veteran's claims. Now it's taking 18 minutes. And computer memory problems are rampant, the IG said. Opening a single document can take three or more minutes.
And paper documents that were scanned into the computer were done piecemeal, with little emphasis on what was important or how files should be organized, the inspector general said.
The National Archives and Records Administration said the VA sent them 50,000 to 63,000 pages a day to scan into the computer, a huge volume with no guidance on what should be prioritized, the IG said.
VA officials, however, said the plan from the beginning was to make incremental improvements over time, instead of trying to bring online a single large system all at once.
"Such an approach would have been high-risk and, due to the continuously evolving nature of the requirements, would have resulted in the system failing to meet real user requirements when finally delivered," the VA said in a response to the report. "Given the complexity of this automation initiative, VA will not be able to completely avoid issues. VA’s strategy is to continue to develop and consistently expand and improve this unique system, addressing risks and issues as they are identified."