At a Baltimore VA office, which Shinseki visited Wednesday, 30 claims processors have been rotated in to meticulously review virtual test pages. They are part of the conversation as VA officials address difficult questions: Should millions of veterans' files in storage be scanned? How is a veteran's privacy going to be protected? What questions should veterans be asked as they fill out an automated form to start the claims process?
"This is about turning a chapter in VA history," Shinseki said. "It's a serious, huge undertaking."
Without a system overhaul, the VA estimates that by 2015, that backlog of disability claims will increase tenfold to about 2.6 million. Those with service-connected injuries already wait an average of about five months to have a claim processed, and there are frequent complaints about lost paperwork and inaccuracy.
Under the current system, people in only one location at a time can look at a veteran's claim, which requires that boxes of paperwork be shipped across the United States. Under the new system, the goal is an electronic file that people in several locations can view simultaneously.
Robert Graham, a claims processor who works for the VA in Winston-Salem, N.C., and was brought in for the review, said it typically takes him six to 12 hours to do his part in processing claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. That time would be cut 70 percent under a new system, he said.
Baltimore is one of four pilot sites. The others are in Providence, R.I., Little Rock, Ark., and Pittsburgh.
The complexity and volume of cases from veterans of the current conflicts have added to the backlog. It's expected to grow primarily because Shinseki in October made it easier for potentially 200,000 sick Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the Agent Orange herbicide to receive service-connected compensation. Under his watch, the VA has also said it will take a second look at the rejected claims of sick Gulf War veterans.