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VA Upgrade Fails To Reduce Delays By LARRY MARGASAK Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP)--Despite spending more than $200 million to upgrade its computers, the agency that distributes compensation for 3.2 million veterans and their survivors takes longer to process claims than it did a decade ago, according to records and interviews.
With more than a half million veterans expected to die this year _ some while awaiting final resolution of claims--a modern, computerized system was considered essential to track cases, reduce backlogs and provide applicants with current information.
But the Veterans Benefits Administration still maintains hundreds of pages of paper in a typical file and takes an average of 205 days to complete an original disability claim, compared with 164 in 1991, an Associated Press review found.
``After hundreds of millions of dollars spent over the past 10 years on VA computer modernization for processing veterans claims, there has been no tangible return for the veteran or the taxpayer,'' said Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., whose House Veterans Affairs subcommittee is investigating what he describes as ``terrible'' service to disabled veterans.
The director of VBA's disability compensation and benefit programs, Robert Epley, acknowledged attempts to upgrade computers have gone through ``fits and starts'' and bounced ``from issue to issue'' without a long-term plan.
But he promised dramatic changes within two years in the programs that dispense $22 billion a year in disability payments to veterans suffering from injury or disease related to their service. The agency also distributes pension benefits to eligible survivors of veterans.
He pledged new computer systems, operated by a better trained workforce and a reduction in errors. Currently, the agency makes an error on about a third of claims. About 8 percent of the errors involve improper benefit amounts.
``Teams are forming who will understand the responsibility of processing claims efficiently, telling veterans not just that we got it (the claim), but here's what we see, here's what we expect, here's an estimate of what it's going to take'' to get a decision, he explained.
The VBA, which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, says it spent $238 million since 1991 for hardware, software, contractors and the salaries of VA employees.
AP's review found that despite the spending:
_Most information in a veteran's file is still on paper. Of 58 regional service centers, only the office where a claim was filed has full access to case records and is able to provide a beneficiary with a complete picture of his or her status.
_A computer program called VETSNET, which was supposed to unite all the VA's diverse agencies from loans to health care to cemeteries to benefits, has achieved only limited links.
_VBA caseworkers are saddled with antiquated programs, which date to before the advent of Microsoft Windows. The old software prevents them from quickly maneuvering through a veteran's file. Unable to point-and-click with a mouse, they have to painstakingly scroll through one screen at a time.
About three years ago, the benefits agency announced a dramatic drop in the time it took to process claims to 133 days. But the VA inspector general, the agency's internal watchdog, concluded in a 1998 report that the agency had simply manipulated the numbers to make them look better.
Epley, the current director, said his agency is now focusing on upgrading the computer system, improving customer service and cutting the error rate. Also, the agency has reversed years of personnel cuts.
Fast claims handling would be welcome to veterans like Richard Smith, of Arlington, Va., who said he endured a 19-year marathon before finally winning monthly benefits some six years ago for a Vietnam War injury.
The 52-year-old subway mechanic filed his claim in 1975, but said the VA was unable to locate his medical records. While the records were stored by the Defense Department, it was an American Legion counselor assisting Smith--not VA officials--who guessed where the files were kept.
``As young soldiers we were naive,'' he said. ``We weren't wording the claims right. I thought the people at VA were looking out for my interest, but that wasn't the case.
``I should have gotten those benefits when I first filed a claim. I was told the records were in a (personnel center) fire. The VA said we pulled out of Vietnam so fast a lot of records were left behind. I said, 'You have the North Vietnamese Army reading my military records?'''
The files were in a warehouse in San Francisco.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), March 16, 2000