VA sets three-pronged approach to improving services

The Veterans Affairs Department is aiming to dramatically improve its services through streamlined online record-keeping, telemedicine and a variety of Web-based applications designed to make access to care easier and more efficient, said Roger Baker, VA’s chief information officer.

Speaking at the AFCEA Belvoir Industry Day March 19, Baker said that VA is focusing IT on three major areas: homelessness, claims backlogs and access to care.

There are currently about 75,000 homeless veterans, and the VA has been working to bring this number down, Baker said. This number is expected to drop to 60,000 this year, and the department has a plan to eliminate homelessness in the veteran population by 2015, he said.

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Technology is a part of this effort. Because homelessness is caused by a number of factors, both economic and psychological, VA offers a variety of online counseling services and registries to identify and help at-risk veterans. VA is also issuing iPads to its personnel who work with homeless veterans in the field, he said.

Another major challenge facing the VA is its claims backlog. There are currently some 827,000 claims awaiting adjudication. This number will only increase, as up to 57 percent of all veterans leaving military service now file for medical claims, Baker said.

One of the department’s key goals is to ensure that claims are turned around in less than 125 days by moving to an electronic process and away from the current system, which is very paper-oriented. “VA claims processing is the most paper-bound process I’ve seen in my life,” Baker said.

The dependence on paper has resulted in a massive reliance and expenditure on physical storage and filing. This is about to change, Baker said. In July, VA will roll out a paperless claims process to 15 centers across the country with the goal of expanding the effort nationally. VA expects a significant reduction in the time and expense related to claims processing through the new system, Baker said.

The third key area that VA is focusing on is access to care. Veterans are scattered across the country, from major urban centers to remote rural areas. The department is using technology, especially telehealth to allow veterans to meet with doctors without having to travel to a facility. Baker noted that it is very easy for patients to see their doctors via the department’s video system.

Among the services provided are mental health visits and in-home health assessments. These video based services save both the department and veterans the cost of traveling to a VA facility and the early detection provided helps to avoid emergency visits, Baker said.

The VA has also made major strides in consolidating its IT services and providing improved product delivery to its customers. Baker noted that when he began his tenure at the department in 2009, the organization only met 30 percent of its IT goals. By implementing a program management accountability program, the department now has no programs with a milestone longer than six months. In 2011, the VA met 89 percent of its milestones. “We need to provide the optimum services for those transitioning [to civilian life],” he said.

Mobile devices are also in the VA’s near future. There are currently less than 1,000 smart phones and tablet computers in the department, Baker said. One reason is that there is currently no formal business case for using mobile devices. However, he said that the efficiencies gained by mobile devices are known and that if they allow clinicians to see one additional patient per day across the VA, it would make a major business case to move toward a major mobile deployment.

VA uses technology to help veterans transition to civilian life in a variety of ways. It has created a veteran’s success website and training sites that line up military occupational skills with civilian equivalents. Other sites track and manage veteran’s physical and mental health.

“We’re transforming the VA. It’s a big organization — it doesn’t transform quickly,” Baker said. But he added that the changes are making a difference. “This is not the old VA,” he said.


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