VBA bids adieu to manual filing with free program

When it comes to paper, the Veterans Benefits Administration just says, No.


Under the auspices of Highway 1, a nonprofit consortium that helps the government work
more efficiently, seven information technology vendors collaborated to create the imaging
and processing system that has let the agency boot manual filing of 2.5 million benefits
claims a year.


And the price for the pilot was definitely right—free, including maintenance,
upgrades and on-site support from several of the industry partners.


As one of the largest insurers in the world, VBA pays out $23 billion in claims
annually. “At any given time, we have 450,000 claims pending some kind of
action,” said Joe Thompson, undersecretary for benefits at the Veterans Affairs
Department.


“This, added to the 20 million phone calls each year, hundreds of thousands of
visits to VA facilities around the country and handling 1 billion pieces of paper a year,
made us look for help,” Thompson said.


It was in a conversation with Greg Woods, deputy director of the National Partnership
for Reinventing Government, that Thompson learned of Highway 1. The nonprofit organization
works to match government agencies that have an IT problem with emerging technology to
solve it.


Thompson approached Highway 1, and the organization in March 1998 brought in
representatives from six of its board members and Radian Systems Inc. of Alexandria, Va.,
to look at VBA’s operation.


“We do this work. We do it every day,” said Jeryle Dorsey, unit chief and
coach at VBA’s Washington Regional Office. The office wanted to know “what it
would take to become a paperless environment. Right now, we have [expandable] folder files
that can get pretty thick. The Highway 1 people came with a laptop, put in an application
and showed us what they could do,” he said.


“The first time we went to the VBA with all the corporate partners it was
mind-blowing,” said Kimberly Jenkins, Highway 1 founder and chairman. “There
were stacks and stacks of files, with rubber bands around them, and frayed paper—some
pieces dating back to the Civil War.”


VBA was accepted for the pilot “to prove a theory that electronic files could work
in processing claims,” Dorsey said.


The first step was analyzing how the business process worked and breaking it into
manageable chunks, Jenkins said. The organization sought to use off-the-shelf software and
hardware in the implementation so it could easily “be replicated for other
organizations with paper problems,” she said.


“We were somewhat leery of the project at first,” Dorsey said. “It was
free, so we wondered about quality.”


Highway 1 companies set out to make believers of the VBA. Working on the pilot were
Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., Computer Sciences Corp., Eastman Kodak Co.,
Eastman Software of Bilerica, Mass., IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Radian, which did most
of the work on high-volume workflow and project integration.


Cisco set up a temporary LAN with switching routers to develop the pilot system. After
the system was fully tested, the temporary LAN was dismantled and the new system
integrated into workflow for the pilot.


Radian supplied its WorldScan, Microsoft Windows NT scanner control and image
enhancement software, to control the 90-page-per-minute Kodak Digital Science 7500D
scanners.


Radian also supplied its WSDOM image capture suite. Based on object-oriented
architecture, WSDOM offers the highest throughput capacity and fault tolerance in image
capturing, said a Radian spokesperson. The suite includes Windows NT processing clients
for image import, enhancement, quality assurance, rescan, optical character recognition,
forms processing, indexing and export tools.


With WSDOM Capture, users have at their disposal cropping, deskew, speckle removal and
auto-rotation tools for improving image quality during scan capture. Using the tools,
users can make even handwritten documents legible on the screen.


VBA bought 17-inch and 21-inch monitors from Cornerstone Imaging Inc. of San Jose,
Calif., to use with new Compaq Deskpro 200-MHz and 300-MHz Pentium PCs, each with 32M of
RAM.


Eastman Software supplied its WorkFolder for Microsoft Exchange (WFX), which adds
collaborative and document management capabilities to Exchange.


After users capture, enhance and save the images, they drop the files in the correct
WFX electronic folders.


“And the good thing about a paperless environment is that we can use personnel for
other tasks instead of looking for folders,” Dorsey said.


“One of the largest benefits [of this project] is reclamation of file space,”
said Mark Mandel, Radian’s vice president of business development.


When the pilot is complete later this year, it is likely to be extended to create
further virtual sites, freeing resources for the agency’s core mission.


The new system “will result in processing veteran’s claims much faster than
before,” Mandel said. “From weeks or months or even years—down to a matter
of days.” 


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