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Pre-Hearing Questions for the Record

Pre-Hearing Questions for the Record

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

Pre-Hearing Questions for the Record

On the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS)

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

Date: January 12, 2016

Question a:  As noted in the GAO report, Congress has provided VA with approximately $1.3 billion dollars in funding for the VBMS program.  As part of the FY 2016 budget request, VBA asked for $253 million in funding for various technology improvements and processes, and for sustainment of the existing components of VBMS.  Provide the total projected cost of developing, implementing, and sustaining the VBMS. 

Response:  Modernizing VBA systems is an essential part of VBA’s overall transformation effort.  Resources have already been invested in VBMS to enable VA to fulfill its ambitious goal to transition from paper-based claims to 21st century, electronic claims processing.  Delivering the remaining VBMS requirements will allow VBA to capitalize on the investment with a comprehensive technical solution.  Each VBMS release provides new or enhanced application functionality, and the system continues to evolve to meet end-user and organizational needs over time.

The FY 2016 budget request includes $76 million for development efforts to enhance the capabilities of VBMS.  This funding will deliver functionality such as appeals processing enhancements at the Agency of Original Jurisdiction level, pension automation, and enhancements to the National Work Queue (NWQ).  Improvements to electronic communications and expanded access to Veteran information in the VBMS electronic folder (eFolder) are also scheduled for FY 2016.  These capabilities have been identified as a high priority for VA stakeholders.  Furthermore, FY 2016 funding will also allow VA to integrate with Department of Defense (DoD) information systems to improve evidence request suspense times, eliminate interagency duplication of efforts, and allow end-users to process benefit claims faster and more accurately.

The remainder of the FY 2016 funding request will provide sustainment services to support continued system stability to the workforce through performance monitoring, defect and incident resolution, and routine maintenance procedures.  Sustainment funding is critical to support the enterprise business capabilities that enable efficient claims processing. 

Planned enhancements for FY 2017 will allow end-users to process more claims end-to-end within a single system, further reducing the reliance on legacy systems.  This transition will allow VBA to drive improvements on the timeliness and quality of benefits delivery and focus on the MyVA initiative, which outlines VA’s transformation to a Veteran-centric organization.  At that time, VA expects to achieve department-wide interoperability goals and will evaluate a new investment plan for FY 2018.

Question b:  Describe in detail how the Department distinguishes between what is considered “development” of VBMS, as compared to “sustainment” of VBMS.

Response:  Development funds are used to enhance and complete the functionality that will enable VA to electronically process disability compensation claims from end-to-end in VBMS.  Development and integration efforts will deliver new functionality, such as support of pension and appeals business processes, which are currently supported primarily by legacy systems.  Although VBMS now supports the full lifecycle of disability compensation claims, enhancement requests from end-users are considered valuable development opportunities to streamline business processes and increase productivity.

Sustainment funds support all activities related to the operation and maintenance of the VBMS application in production at the current capability and performance level, including support for deployment resources and equipment.  Sustainment costs do not support new functionality or enhancements, but rather the maintenance of existing information systems and applications.  There are two types of sustainment funds:  mandatory and marginal.  Mandatory sustainment provides funding to keep production systems and applications running.  Marginal sustainment supports new cost or increased cost to maintain a newly deployed application or system from the point of deployment until the end of the fiscal year.

Question c:  Describe in detail the features of VBMS that have been developed thus far, and which of those features are now considered to be in sustainment.

Response:  VBMS is a web-based application primarily used by VBA employees to electronically process disability compensation claims.  Additional stakeholder groups, including the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and Veterans Service Organizations (VSO), can access VBMS to aid in the claims process and execute their respective actions.  The Board of Veterans’ Appeals (the Board) also has access to VBMS to review the eFolder. 

A major feature of VBMS is the eFolder, which is used to electronically store claim-related documents and evidence.  VBMS features developed to date enable VA to electronically intake and establish claims, develop and evaluate evidence, provide rating decisions, and generate awards.  Rating functionality provides rules-based tools and automated decision recommendations.  Awards functionality automates award and notification processes.

Sustainment funding is used to sustain all of the above deployed capabilities, along with the VBMS infrastructure.  Development funding only supports the development of new features and system enhancements, along with integration work that enables VBMS to support the strategic partners of VBA.  All features are considered in sustainment as soon as they are deployed to production.  

Question d:  Provide the percentage of total VBMS development that has been completed, and the expected date of completion. 

Response:  With the completion of the electronic eFolder, VBMS has reached its initial operating capability.  Ongoing development efforts enhance existing functionality and application performance, as well as deploy new features to increase claims processing efficiency and help the VA workforce meet its strategic goals.  VA recognizes the need to continue to invest in "next generation" VBMS.  VBMS employs an Agile development methodology that allows solutions and requirements to evolve based on priority for each development cycle.  Development plans are prioritized and tailored as new business requirements are identified.  The long-term vision for the VBMS program will involve transitioning from an application-centric model to one focused on delivering enterprise business capabilities.  VA expects to achieve Department-wide interoperability goals that support common access, stakeholder integration, and end-user satisfaction in FY 2018. 

Question e:  Describe in detail the functionality VBMS currently contains to process paperless appeals.

Response:  Some appeals-specific functionality has been delivered for VBA and the Board.  This functionality provides the Board’s end-users with a distinct eFolder view, the ability to bookmark, and restricted viewing of the Board’s annotations and notes.  These features support paperless appeals processing to view documents in the eFolder.  VBMS is collaborating with appeals subject matter experts to include more Agency of Original Jurisdiction appeals-specific requirements for future development. 

Question f:  Describe in detail the Department’s plan to determine to what extent end-users are satisfied with the VBMS program. 

Response:  The VBMS Program Management Office (PMO) has a strong desire to obtain customer satisfaction information from all end-users, to include claims processors, VHA clinicians, and other stakeholders.  As stated in response to the recent GAO report (GAO-15-582), VBA is working with labor partners on distribution of a survey, as well as the specific items to be assessed by this survey.  The VBMS PMO expects to release a survey in March 2016 to measure end-user satisfaction.

However, a survey gives only a snapshot in time, while continuous feedback provides opportunity for the system to be adapted based on that feedback and realization of benefits offered by Agile methodology.  The VBMS PMO has sought feedback from users since initial deployment and also relied on the subject-matter expertise of users to develop the system.  The VBMS PMO provides various channels for customer feedback, including stakeholder reengagement, user acceptance testing (UAT), requirements and design sessions, a post-deployment command center, superuser training, change management agent calls, Under Secretary for Benefits (USB) pulse check calls, and the national Transformation Chat.  These channels are in addition to the help desk report that captures and prioritizes all reported VBMS-related issues.   Enhancement requests from end-users are frequently reviewed and considered for possible inclusion in a future release, as they offer insight to potential improvements to everyday processes.  VBMS will continue this process of continual feedback.

Question g: Provide the percentage of all decisions that were appealed through a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) in FY 2015.  Please also provide the total number of NODs filed in FY 2015.

Response: Five percent of the 1.4 million rating-related claim decisions made in FY 2015 had been appealed by the end of FY 2015.  Most of the Veterans who received a decision in 2015 are still within their one-year appeal period.  There were 169,069 NODs established in FY 2015.  Approximately 91 percent of these NODs were filed on compensation and pension rating claim decisions.  Within this 91 percent, approximately 55 percent of the NODs were submitted on claims completed in FY 2015, with the remainder submitted on claims completed in earlier fiscal years.

Question h:  Provide the total number of Statements of the Case (SOCs) that were issued in FY 2015.

Response:  There were 100,018 SOCs issued in FY 2015.  Many of these SOCs were issued for NODs submitted in earlier fiscal years.  An additional 28,766 Supplemental SOCs (SSOCs) were issued in FY 2015.

Question i:  Provide the percentage of all Statements of the Case (SOCs) issued in FY 2015 that granted the claimed benefit(s) on appeal.  Please also provide the percentage of all SOCs issued in FY 2015 that denied the claimed benefit(s) on appeal.

Response:  In FY 2015, VBA resolved 16,718 appeals through a full grant of the benefit sought; as a result, no SOC was issued on these NODs.  VBA resolved an additional 2,193 appeals following issuance of an SOC, but prior to certification to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board).  In addition, 54,468 appellants were satisfied with their SOC and chose not to pursue their appeal to the Board.  Approximately 46 percent of appellants who were issued an SOC in FY 2015 chose to continue their appeal to the Board.

Question j: Provide the Average Days Pending (ADP) between the filing of a non-rating claim and the issuance of a decision in FY 2015.

Response:  The FY 2015 Average Days to Complete (ADC) non-rating claims data (from the date of filing to the issuance of a decision) is provided in the table below.  Non-Rating Related End Products (EPs) represent that grouping of other than rating claims most likely to impact the benefit provided to a Veteran or Survivor.

Other-Than-Rating End Product Activity FY2015

Other Than Rating EP Group

Completes

ADC

Non-Rating Related EPs

1,219,432

94.6

Control End Products

1,042,740

179.9

Other C&P End Products

850,213

151.9

Total Other Than Rating

3,112,385

143.7

Question k: Describe in detail what resources VBA has devoted to ensure that the functionality of VBMS remains responsive to needs of BVA employees working on appeals cases.

Response:  The primary focus of VBMS has been to deliver functionality supporting paperless compensation claims processing toward reducing the claims backlog.  As a result, many appeals are available in a paperless environment, and the Board leverages many of the same features as VBA, including simultaneous access by multiple users, ability to search documents electronically, and reduction in the potential for lost mail or misplaced files.  Functionality specific to the Board was added to the scope of Major Release 5.0, 6.0, and 7.0.  The Board now has nearly 700 end-users in unique user roles for judges, attorneys, and administration of appeals work.  In December 2013, VBMS Release 6.0 featured a customized “Board View” of the electronic folder.  This distinct view of the electronic folder includes restricted viewing of Board annotations and notes, and bookmarking capabilities.

VBA continues to work with the Board to identify and address areas of improvement in appeals processing.  VBA is also collaborating with the Board-led Appeals Modernization effort, which is leveraging the U.S. Digital Services Team to integrate the electronic folder with the Department’s legacy appeals database known as the Veterans Appeals Control and Locator System (VACOLS).