VA simplifies veterans' hunt for benefit information

The IVR system lets callers access
recorded information about a wide range of VA programs.





The Veterans Benefits Administration is piloting an automated response telephone system
that does the call routing over Sprint Corp.’s FTS 2000 network rather than on
equipment at VBA premises.


The proof-of-concept pilot will help the Veterans Affairs Department choose between
owning its integrated voice response equipment or paying for network service in future
applications.


“We had two pilots where we had premises-based equipment,” said Richard Culp,
director of VBA’s telecommunications staff. “We wanted to test the network-based
equipment.”


The system relies on the Intela platform from Microlog Corp. of Germantown, Md. Sprint
and Microlog have also teamed to provide interactive voice response services to the IRS.


Although evaluation of the four-month VBA pilot is just beginning, Culp said that it
went smoothly for the most part. The pilot gave Iowa veterans access to a broad range of
benefits and payment status information.


“We find the platform stable,” he said. “It does take some integration
to pass the caller to the local switching environment, however.”


He said VBA now is working with Sprint to decide what switching platforms the telephone
company wants to support for integrated voice response.


Sprint offers interactive voice response services to all FTS 2000 users as well as in
its FTS 2001 bid, said Diana Philbrick, Sprint’s senior federal program manager.


A number of agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, have
expressed interest, Philbrick said.


The Intela hardware-software platform has industry-standard PC hardware and voice
boards. Its Unix operating system from Santa Cruz Operation Inc. of Santa Cruz, Calif.,
maintains a multitasking, client-server environment in which multiple interactive
applications can run simultaneously. Intela is scalable up from four ports. The Sprint
box, co-located with an FTS 2000 switch in Elkridge, Md., has 1,152 ports.


“As demand increases, we can add to that,” Philbrick said, although the
current configuration should be adequate for quite a while.


The potential advantages to purchasing interactive voice response as a network service
include using multiple databases from a single point, Philbrick said.


Intela is year 2000-ready, and agencies can pay for the service from their operating
budgets.


“We buy the service on an as-used basis rather than make a capital
investment,” Culp said.


The regional information centers at the VA’s offices in Des Moines, Iowa, and St.
Paul, Minn., collaborate on the VBA pilot. Iowa veterans who call the VA’s nationwide
toll-free information number, 800-827-1000, are routed to the automated response system.


It lets them access recorded information about a wide range of VA programs and check on
the status of their latest compensation or education payments. The information satisfies a
high percentage of calls, but callers who want to speak to a human can connect to a
representative at the St. Paul office.


Elsewhere in the nation, the VA information number routes callers to their state
regional offices. Although many offices have a front-end message tree for incoming calls,
there is no common system of messages or information bases, Culp said. The local systems
also do not give 24-hour, seven-day coverage and cannot provide information on payment
status, which comes from a database at the VA Finance Center in Hines, Ill. VBA downloads
the information to a server connected to the Intela system at Elkridge. Information on
compensation and educational benefits payments is downloaded regularly, Culp said.  

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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