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With a month to go before launching a fully automated claims processing system for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Veterans Affairs Department is reporting great success in managing the fall enrollment period.
Roger Baker, assistant VA secretary for information and technology, and the agency's chief information officer, told a congressional watchdog agency that the automation is working, despite initial concerns.
"Despite unanimous predictions to the contrary," VA successfully converted processing of new Post-9/11 GI Bill claims for the fall term to a new, automated system, Baker said.
"Since installation, the new system has been nearly flawless, with no significant ‘bugs' encountered," Baker said in a letter to the Government Accountability Office, which has been monitoring progress of a claims processing program that could be the model for taming VA's large backlog of disability and benefits claims. "The Veterans Benefits Administration claims processors like the new system, and find it easy and efficient to use," Baker said in a letter dated Nov. 12 but released Tuesday.
The automated system has been implemented in phases. The final phase, expected to be in place by the end of December, includes a student interface allowing claims to be filed and tracked electronically. If things go as planned, these features would be available for students applying for benefits for the spring 2011 term.
GAO has been critical of the automation system, not because it doesn't seem to be working but because of disagreements with VA over how to test its functions and accuracy. Baker and other VA officials have agreed to make some changes based on the review by GAO auditors but note that three phases of automation have been installed with no significant or severe errors.
About 200,000 students are using the GI Bill for the fall term, about the same number as last year, when the new program was hit with a variety of start-up problems including late and miscalculated payments, and a VA hotline set up to help with questions that students said was difficult to reach. The VA took an unprecedented move of issuing $3,000 emergency checks to many students to cover living expenses while problems were corrected.
Problems continue with calculating benefits and tuition payments because of an extremely complicated formula that Congress could change under pending legislation. VA officials and veterans organizations have been working on improvements, but it is unclear when that legislation might pass and when the changes might take effect.