February 5, 2009 – The Veterans Affairs Department needs an electronic claims system if it is ever to eliminate its massive claims backlog, new VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told a House committee Wednesday.
“If you go into the adjudication rooms where decisions on claims are made, you’ll see individuals sitting at desks with stacks of papers going halfway up to the ceiling,” Shinseki said. VA has 11,100 people processing claims, and is scheduled to hire another 1,100 this year to keep up with the work. About 885,000 new claims were filed in 2008 on top of a backlog estimated at more than a half a million, Shinseki said.
“If we don’t – create a paperless process, I’ll report a year later that we hired more people,” Shinseki told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We need to very quickly take this into an IT format that allows us to do timely, accurate, consistent decision making on behalf of our veterans.”
Previous VA leaders set a deadline of 2010 to put an electronic claims system in place, but Shinseki said he hasn’t explored whether that’s a feasible deadline.
“My intent is to get to a paperless system as soon as possible,” Shinseki said. He plans to send out a policy letter to VA employees within a week stating his support for continued centralization of IT and systems.
Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., agreed with the need to go paperless. “Have you ever gone into a file room? It’s almost dangerous as some of these file rooms are overwhelmed by individual files that will be three, four or five feet tall,” he said.
Electronic storage of pdf files into one document will be more efficient than keeping paper files and a much more efficient way to search through data, he said.
Shinseki also said he will push to make VA and Defense Department medical records more compatible, a project that has been mired in red tape for decades. He said he will meet with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a few weeks to plan how to speed up the project.
When an active-duty military member “comes to us as a veteran, those records are going to be transferable, accurate and complete,” Shinseki said, adding that personnel records, not just medical records, should be compatible and available for doctors to review.
He added that requiring military members to enroll with VA when they leave the military will force the two departments to collaborate.
Lawmakers also discussed the need for timely VA appropriations. Shinseki said he will get a timely request to President Barack Obama in hopes of an on-time 2010 budget.
Ranking Member Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., encouraged Shinseki to pursue energy-saving initiatives, including solar and wind power for buildings and using solar panels to heat water.