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Digitizing VA processes from the ground up

The Department of Veterans Affairs is digitizing paper-based processes with a platform that is transforming day-to-day activities and emergency response.

The Light Electronic Action Framework (LEAF) is web-based, open source process improvement software that helps non-technical users digitize processes at speed and scale.  Designed to streamline day-to-day operations, LEAF’s data capabilities make it easier to connect large databases and workflows by helping users create digital forms for their processes.

“It’s really process-agnostic,” said Zina Raye, program manager for LEAF at AbleVets, a small business that developed the functionality and handles community outreach and training. “You can digitize anything, from things like requests for travel or approval for reimbursement of tuition or requests for a vehicle to go to community-based clinics. " Raye said the solution has also been used to streamline the hiring process, coordinate volunteer schedules and submit resource requests.

To use LEAF, agency users submit a request on the LEAF website, and they receive a LEAF-made form asking what process they want to digitize. An AbleVets team member then contacts them and the URL for the form is set up within a day.

This means that if staff members at a VA site in Arizona come up with a great form, they can put it on VA’s LEAF website, and then the VA or anyone can take it and customize it for their needs. The README file on GitHub notes that LEAF is not configured or optimized for use outside VA, but Raye said agencies at the federal, state and local levels can easily adapt it.

One of LEAF’s biggest advantages is minimizing human error, she said. For example, long, detailed forms often require a checkmark at the bottom that's easily overlooked. LEAF's digital forms can make it impossible to miss a required field.

“If you have a form and the checkmark at the end you coded it in as a field not to be missed, then the system will bring it back to your attention or it will bring you a note that says you have to put it in,” Raye said.

The framework got its start in 2008, when VA leaders began looking to move away from paper forms, Raye said. Michael Gao, VA employee and LEAF’s chief architect created the original solution at Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Now instead of storing information in hard-to-search filing cabinets, the data from the digital forms go into a database, making the it easily searchable and reportable. As of April 2018, LEAF has a user base of 24,500 VA employees and handles more than 100,000 business transactions annually.

The Salisbury, N.C., VA Medical Center has used the framework to speed its hiring process, reducing the amount of time from the hiring request to the final decision by 54 percent, according to Medium post by the VA Center for Innovation.

And although LEAF is intended to ease day-to-day operations, the Veterans Health Administration’s telehealth group used it to provide care after hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit last year. In less than 24 hours, members of the Virtual Integrated Multisite Patient Aligned Care Team Clinical Operations group and the LEAF development team stood up a portal to let telehealth clinical providers volunteer to help people in the affected areas. More than 575 clinicians in 18 specialties volunteered.

“That total was 9,582 hours volunteered,” Raye said. “As you can imagine, I probably would not be able to keep all of those statistics in mind, so how do I know that? That’s another big advantage of LEAF. You can run the reports from your database.”

With the 2018 hurricane season looming, AbleVets is applying lessons learned from the telehealth volunteer use case to improve LEAF. “One of the lessons learned and feedback was that while clinicians could choose the hours and dates," they didn't get any feedback from the VA, Raye said. “They did not know if they were accepted. There was no direct method within the portal to say, ‘OK, thank you. We got it, and your volunteer hours are needed for Monday and Wednesday.’”

Additionally, Raye said, plans are in place to move LEAF from a server within VA’s infrastructure to the cloud. She expects the transition to happen within the next three months.

This article was updated May 16 to include mention of Michael Gao and to correct the current number of users. 

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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