VA downplays claims computer being taken offline

Inamemotoraterswithinthedepartment’sbenefitsadministration,officialssaidtheVeteransBenefitsManagementSystemsaidtheproblemsstartedMondaymorning,withclaimsofficialsnationwidebeingunexpectedlybootedfromthesystem.
Themessage,firstpostedonthewebsiteVAWatchdog.org,instructedraterstouseolderprocessingsystemsuntilfurthernotice.VAspokesmanRandyNollerdownplayedtheincident,sayingtheproblemswereconfinedtotheratingstoolaspectsofVBMS,andwerearesultofsystemupdates.
“Thismarksthe13thVBMSrelease,includingpatches,issuedinthepastsixmonths,”hesaid.“Occasionalsystemissuestiedtothissoftwaredevelopmentapproacharetobeexpected.”
OfficialswerehopefulthesystemwouldberepairedbyTuesdayevening,buttheincidentraisedeyebrowsamongcriticsonCapitolHillandworkerswithintheVA.
VBMShasbeentoutedasthekeystoneinthedepartment’seffortstofixthemountingveteransclaimsbacklog.Thethree-year-oldsystem,alreadyinitsfourthiteration,hasbeeninstalledinmorethanhalfoftheVA’s56regionalclaimsoffices,andplanscallforfulldistributionofthesystembytheendofthisyear.
Theonlinesystemisdesignedallowbettersharingofdigitalclaimsfiles,leadingtoquickerprocessingandbetteraccuracy.
Butgettingthesystemrunninghasbeenproblematic.
Veteransgroupslastsummercomplainedthattherolloutoftheupdatedsystemwastakingtoolong.InJanuary,the$500million-plussystemgroundtoahaltasclaimsofficerstriedtoaccessfiles.Atthetime,VAofficialstoldreportersatNextGov.comthatwasduetoalargenumberofnewusersaccessingthesystem.
Lastmonth,officialsfromtheAmericanFederationofGovernmentEmployeescomplainedthattheirmembershaveseen“significantglitches”inthenewsystem,buttheVAhasnotyetfoundaneffectivewaytocompileandrespondtothoseerrors.
AreportfromtheVAinspectorgeneralinFebruarysaidthesystemisplaguedwith“disorganizedelectronicclaimsfoldersandimpropermanagementofhard-copyclaims.”
Inthelasttwomonths,theVA’stwotoptechnologyofficials—ChiefTechnologyOfficerPeterLevinandChiefInformationOfficerRogerBaker—bothleftthedepartment,althoughneitherresignationwaslinkedtoproblemsinthesystem.
Thenumberofcompensationandpensionclaimscurrentlybacklogged—filesthathavebeenpendingformorethanfourmonths—sitsataround600,000.Theaveragewaitforaclaimtobecompletedisalmostninemonths.
Lastweek,VASecretaryEricShinsekisaidofficialsarestillina“workout”periodfortheVBMSrollout,butheisconfidentthesystemandbacklogplanarebothontrack.
“Wecontinuetogivecapabilitywitheachupdate,”hesaid.“We’redoingitincrementally,beingpatient...getitstable.”
ButShinsekialsosaidheexpectsthebacklogtoworsenbeforeitimproves,andwouldnotgiveanytimelineforwhenveteransmightseethenumbersbegintodecrease.
OnTuesday,HouseSpeakerJohnBoehnersenthissecondletterthisyeartotheVAdemanding“acoherentplan,withbenchmarks,deadlines,andspecificmeasurementsofprogress,toaddressthebacklogofveterans’compensationclaims.”
Init,hewrotetheVAhasnotproducedanyevidencethatthenewVAsystemswilleliminatethebacklogorimproveclaimsprocessing.
HouseVeteransAffairsCommitteeChairmanRep.JeffMiller,whohassimilarlycriticizedtheVA’sstatedplan,saidhewaslessconcernedwiththetemporarysoftwareoutagethanVAleadership’soverallapproach.
“ThelargerissuehereisthatVBMSissimplynotthepanaceaVAofficialsclaimittobe,”hesaidinastatement.”FixingthebacklogstartswithhavinganhonestconversationaboutproblemsthathaveplaguedVAforyears:mismanagement,poorplanningandlackofaccountabilityamongsomeemployees.”


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