VA digitizing old paper records to speed veteran disability claims

Some documents that date back to World War II require handwriting recognition software to make sense of them.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is undertaking a major modernization effort to digitize millions of old inactive paper records with the goal of reducing processing times for disability claims.

Among its compensation programs, the Veterans Benefits Administration provides direct payments to veterans with disabilities that are the result of a disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service. In fact, the VBA pays about $6 billion per month in disability benefits.

Previously, if a veteran’s medical condition worsened and they filed a new or supplemental claim, retired paper files had to be boxed up and shipped from one of 33 regional offices to a centralized intake site to be scanned into the VA’s computer systems for claim processing to begin.

However, because of the VBA’s ongoing digitization efforts, veteran records are now being made electronically available so that when a claim is filed, the information is readily accessible and the processing time for claims is reduced.

“What we’re doing is going back and digitizing all the historical records so that when we get those claims in, we instantly have all their past history,” says Brad Houston, director of the VBA’s Office of Business Process Integration. “It will give claims processors nationwide the ability to instantly access millions of inactive claim records when needed.”

Of the almost 2 million inactive files stored in 33 regional offices across the country, so far more than 500,000 files have been gathered from eight regional offices for scanning. By the end of 2018, VBA is slated to transfer and scan paper claim records from the remaining regional offices.

“We do use health records, obviously—we use veterans’ service treatment records from their VA physicians as well as private treatment records to make disability determinations,” adds Houston. “We have to get to all of the historical records to determine whether or not there is what we call a ‘medical nexus,’ or connection between the present condition that a veteran might claim for disability compensation and whatever happened to them during military service.”

Also See: VA, SSA use eHealth Exchange to share veteran medical records

By digitizing these records, the VA will save $150 million over 10 years, in large part because of eliminating the need to lease office space to store the paper documents, according to Derek Herbert, assistant director of VBA’s Veterans Claims Intake Program.

“For the document conversion effort, we’re leveraging industry best practices and technology to scan materials,” says Herbert. “That material is then maintained in perpetuity in the VA system of record, which is the Veterans Benefits Management System.”

Houston notes that some of the records that are being digitized are more than 70 years old, many of which are handwritten documents dating back to World War II. Given the age and condition of these records, he emphasizes that the digitization process is critical for claims processors.

“The first thing we do is identify what kind of document it is, because there is a world of difference to a decision maker between a surgical note and routing slip, and between a discharge exam—which is the entire summary as they got out of the military—and a sick-call note from when they went to the medic one day while on active duty,” observes Houston. “The technology we use is really reliable for identifying the document type. And then, within the type of document, we look for diagnoses and treatments.”

While Houston acknowledges that handwritten documents are more of a challenge because they might appear indecipherable, he contends that the handwriting recognition software the VA uses is very accurate.

“We have two vendors that do the work, and we’re constantly measuring them against each other,” concludes Houston. “The vendor that has the higher accuracy and quicker speed gets more business. As much as we can in government, we try and use our acquisition process to drive continual improvement.”

Under the Transformation Twenty-One Total Technology Next Generation (T4NG) contract, which provides IT support to VA and other federal agencies, CSRA and Systems Made Simple compete for task orders.

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