Senior officials from the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs assured Congress today that they are closing in on solutions that will alleviate the backlog of veterans’ health benefit claims and streamline processing of current and future claims.
Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, testified along with Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, and Jessica L. Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and witnesses from the Department of Veterans Affairs before the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees.
While the two departments can read each other’s health records now, Kendall said, “We want to have an improved system from that, where we're not just reading the records, but actually using them and using the data that's provided.”
“We also want to eliminate paper that's currently part of the records that we're sending,” he added, noting that the departments are moving very quickly to accomplish both.
Kendall said DOD is committed to the joint, near-term fielding of fully integrated, seamless health records under the interagency program office. At the same time, he noted, the department will solicit bids for a health care management system.
“The health care management software doesn't just make a record,” he pointed out. “It helps the physicians do their job. And that's a very important reason for us to modernize our systems.”
In a written, joint opening statement submitted for the record, DOD witnesses stated the two departments will work through the calendar year on achieving full interoperability of health data through a series of near-term “accelerator” efforts. These efforts, they said, will result in each service member and veteran having a single, seamless, shared, integrated healthcare record.
“All patients, and the clinicians serving them, will be able to access all of their health data, whether the patient is currently a military member or veteran and treated at a DOD or VA hospital,” according to the statement.
The VA announced in June that an initiative launched in April to expedite disability compensation claims decisions for veterans who have a waited a year or longer had cleared more than 65,000 claims -- 97 percent of all claims over two years old -- from the backlog.
Veterans Benefits Administration staff members are now working to complete the disability claims of veterans who have been waiting more than a year for a decision, VA officials said.
VA officials also noted in June that the department expedites disability claims for homeless veterans, those experiencing extreme financial hardship, the terminally ill, former prisoners of war, Medal of Honor recipients and veterans filing fully developed claims.
Claims for wounded warriors separating from the military for medical reasons are handled separately with DOD through the Integrated Disability Evaluation System. Wounded warriors separating through IDES currently receive VA compensation benefits within an average of 61 days of their separation from service, officials said.
VA’s claims inventory is composed mostly of supplemental claims from veterans already receiving disability compensation who are seeking to address worsening conditions or claim additional disabilities, officials said.
Regardless of the status of compensation claims, they added, veterans who have served in combat since Nov. 11, 1998, are eligible for five years of free medical care from VA for most conditions.
VA witnesses at today’s hearing included Stephen Warren, acting assistant secretary for information and technology, Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health, and Danny Pummill, deputy undersecretary for benefits.
Warren said DOD and VA have achieved “an unprecedented level of collaboration” to ensure service members can seamlessly transition into veterans.
“Through DOD and VA channels such as the Joint Executive Committee, the Health Executive Committee, the Benefits Executive Committee, independent working groups and the day-to-day work of our respective hardworking employees, our two departments are removing barriers and challenges which impede seamless transition,” he said.
Warren noted the departments share two common goals: “Create a seamless health record integrating VA, DOD and private provider data, and to modernize the software supporting DOD and VA clinicians.”
That modernization will reach full operational capability by the end of 2017, he said, and VA is also “on track to meet our agency priority goal of eliminating the backlog of claims, those pending longer than 125 days, in 2015.”
The total inventory of claims is now below 800,000, he said, and the backlog has been reduced by more than 14 percent from its highest point four months ago.
“For the second month in a row, VA claims processors set production records by completing more claims than in any previous monthly period,” Warren added.
Collaboration efforts are ongoing with DOD to allow VA to receive complete service records, and to receive them electronically for faster and more efficient processing, he said.
DOD agreed in December that the military services will certify that service member's military treatment records are as complete as possible at the point of transition to VA, he said, and by the end of this year VA will receive all service treatment records electronically.
“This will contribute to reducing the time it takes to process future disability claims,” Warren said.
Pummill noted electronic records will greatly add to VA’s flexibility in processing claims.
“That'll put us in a position so that, if a claim comes in from Ohio, it doesn't have to be done ... by a claims person in Ohio,” he said. “When the claim comes in, the next available person anywhere in the country can take that claim and work it because all of the records will be electronic, eliminating the need to mail records around the country.”
He added, “The advent of the Veterans Benefits Management System and the electronic service treatment records that we're going to be receiving from [DOD] … will go a long way to preventing future backlogs and ending this backlog right now.”
Woodson agreed, noting, “Not only will we be able to exchange that information so that it can be read by whomever might need the information in the Veterans Administration system, but it will be computable data.”
Woodson added that DOD and VA staffs have learned that modernizing health care management and health records involves not just technology solutions, but also reengineering business processes.
“I want to thank our VA colleagues,” he said, “because through information-sharing summits and the like, we have illuminated areas where the business processing reengineering needs to occur so that they can take advantage of the technology solutions.”
Kendall told the representatives that while it wasn’t the subject of the hearing, he wanted to make a comment on sequestration.
“I cannot sit before this committee today two days after we started furloughing our employees and not mention sequestration,” he said. About 85 percent of DOD civilian employees will be furloughed one day a week through the end of the fiscal year, a total of 11 days without pay.
“The effects of sequestration are real,” Kendall said. “They're distributed all across the department. They are not dramatic in any specific instance, but their cumulative impact is dramatic. And they will have over time, particularly if allowed to continue in [fiscal year 2014], a devastating impact on the department.”
Wright said the furlough won’t affect the pace of claims processing.
“Yes, furloughs are real,” she said. “Yes, they're damning. But we have kind of locked [claims processing] down as hugely important and we're putting a full-court press on it.”