WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs’ new claims processing system was taken offline for repairs this week, raising more questions about the department’s long-term plans to break the claims backlog.
In a memo to raters within the department’s benefits administration, officials with the Veterans Benefits Management System said the problems started Monday morning, with claims officials nationwide being unexpectedly booted from the system.
The message, first posted on the website VAWatchdog.org, instructed raters to use older processing systems until further notice. VA spokesman Randy Noller downplayed the incident, saying the problems were confined to the ratings tool aspects of VBMS, and were a result of system updates.
“This marks the 13th VBMS release, including patches, issued in the past six months,” he said. “Occasional system issues tied to this software development approach are to be expected.”
Officials said the system was fixed by Wednesday afternoon, a little more than 48 hours after it was partially shut down. But the incident raised eyebrows among critics on Capitol Hill and workers within the VA.
VBMS has been touted as the keystone in the department’s efforts to fix the mounting veterans claims backlog. The 3-year-old system, already in its fourth iteration, has been installed in more than half of the VA’s 56 regional claims offices, and plans call for full distribution of the system by the end of this year.
The online system is designed to allow better sharing of digital claims files, leading to quicker processing and better accuracy.
But getting the system running has been problematic.
Veterans groups last summer complained that the rollout of the updated system was taking too long. In January, the $500 million-plus system ground to a halt as claims officers tried to access files. At the time, VA officials told reporters at NextGov.com that was due to a large number of new users accessing the system.
Last month, officials from the American Federation of Government Employees complained that their members have seen “significant glitches” in the new system, but the VA has not yet found an effective way to compile and respond to those errors.
A report from the VA inspector general in February said the system is plagued with “disorganized electronic claims folders and improper management of hard-copy claims.”
In the last two months, the VA’s two top technology officials — Chief Technology Officer Peter Levin and Chief Information Officer Roger Baker — both left the department, although neither resignation was linked to problems in the system.
The number of compensation and pension claims currently backlogged — files that have been pending for more than four months — sits at around 600,000. The average wait for a claim to be completed is almost nine months.
Last week, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said officials are still in a “work out” period for the VBMS rollout, but he is confident the system and backlog plan are both on track.
“We continue to give capability with each update,” he said. “We’re doing it incrementally, being patient ... get it stable.”
But Shinseki also said he expects the backlog to worsen before it improves, and would not give any timeline for when veterans might see the numbers begin to decrease.
On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner sent his second letter this year to the VA demanding “a coherent plan, with benchmarks, deadlines, and specific measurements of progress, to address the backlog of veterans’ compensation claims.”
In it, he wrote the VA has not produced any evidence that the new VA systems will eliminate the backlog or improve claims processing.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, who has similarly criticized the VA’s stated plan, said he was less concerned with the temporary software outage than VA leadership’s overall approach.
“The larger issue here is that VBMS is simply not the panacea VA officials claim it to be,” he said in a statement.” Fixing the backlog starts with having an honest conversation about problems that have plagued VA for years: mismanagement, poor planning and lack of accountability among some employees.”