The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is using a digital Web-based system to process veterans' disability claims, replacing its antiquated paper files in an effort to reduce the backlog of nearly 24,000 cases.
Tommy Sowers, the VA assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, said during a news conference in the Ward Federal Building that 18 regional VA offices, including the one in Winston-Salem, have adopted the Veterans Benefits Management System.
"It's moving basically from a 19th century, paper based, huge files to into something like Gmail, like something that you would work with normally, Sowers said. "The whole goal on this is to bring innovation to this process, and quit kicking this can down road."
VA officials will use this system with the goal of eliminating the backlog of veterans' cases by 2015, Sowers said. The VA will use the system in its remaining 38 regional offices during this year.
The system will cost $700 million the federal government over five years, said Cheryl Rawls, the director of the city's VA office.
"We are making an investment in our veterans," Sowers said. "That's the right thing to do."
Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, said the new system will serve veterans and tackle the complex claims that VA employees handle daily. VA officials have recognized medical conditions of Vietnam veterans related to Agent Orange in Southeast Asia, and post-traumatic stress disorder of veterans involved in American conflicts in the Persian Gulf region and Afghanistan.
Thousands of veterans can now file disability claims, and that has increased the number of claims in the system, the VA said.
"We continue to transform our claims system to be more responsive through new processes and technology, because taking care of our veterans and their loved ones is our highest priority," Shinseki said in a statement.
The VA first mentioned the paperless, digital disability-claims disability system last August when its Winston-Salem office had too much paperwork that the building's sixth floor was in danger of collapsing under its weight.
At that time, the VA's inspector general estimated that about 37,000 claims folders were piled on top of file cabinets, raising concerns that the floor could collapse under the weight. Some files were stacked in boxes lining the wall.
The average file is 2 inches thick, Sowers said, and the files contain veterans' service records and medical histories. The local office has about 700 employees and 476 (68 percent) of them are veterans, Sowers said.
"These veterans helping veterans committed to eliminating this backlog, and helping our vets get the benefits they deserve," he said.
Sowers, 36, is a 1998 graduate of Duke University, where he served its Army ROTC program. He completed special-forces training at Ft. Bragg. Sowers served 11 years in the Army and left the service as a major before joining the VA.
The VA will store the paper files, and officials are working on the details of where that material will be stored, Sowers said. In the Winston-Salem office, employees have moved 60,000 records since December to another facility, a volume that would reach 2 miles, he said.
Under the new system, veterans will receive claims' decisions within four months after they file a claim, Sowers said. The system is 98 percent accurate in its record-keeping, Sowers said.
"It's important to get it right for the taxpayers, and it is important to get it right for the veterans," he said.
Terry Campbell of Cooleemee, a Navy veteran, said the new system should be effective.
"It sounds good to me," Campbell said. "The more paperwork you are going through, the more time it takes. Using a computer and a Website will make it go a lot faster."