Why I Support Vets

Photo Credit: U.S. Dept of Veteran Affairs
Photo Credit: U.S. Dept of Veteran Affairs

Bottom line: if someone volunteers to risk taking a bullet to protect me, I should stand up and help out.

This might date back to my mid-teens, towards the end of the Vietnam war. I saw returning vets getting treated without respect. At that time, I knew that was wrong, but couldn’t articulate it.

Maybe seven years ago, I was at a lunch, sitting next to a guy from the Iraq & Afghanistan Vets of America, IAVA.org. Finally, it clicked in, that this was the right way to support regular people who gave up a lot to protect us, and that includes their families.

Now, I’m on the board of IAVA, and am involved with a lot of vets and military families groups, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (I’m their official nerd-in-residence).

What are some reasons you support vets and military families?

5 More Ways VA is Helping Out Vets

The Department of Veteran Affairs doesn’t get the recognition they deserve. They’re really working hard to help vets. As the official VA Nerd-in-Residence, I’d like to begin 2014 by reminding folks of a few of the VA’s efforts.

  1. The VA is doing more and more to give homeless vets a hand. The move is part of the larger government-wide effort to end veterans homelessness in the next two years, and comes at a time when most federal programs are tightening their belts in an effort to deal with sharp reductions in funding. More on the homelessness efforts here and on the VA site here.

    ending va homelessness
    Photo Credit: U.S. Dept of Veteran Affairs
  2. For disability compensation, they’ve deployed something like TurboTax for veterans. It appears to be decently user-friendly, adjusted for the way that vets and veteran service orgs (VSOs) really operate. The software also accounts for all the laws and regulations, the rules that VA has gotta follow to write checks.A vet would start up eBenefits, online, click on “Apply for Disability Compensation” and go. It’s mostly drop-down menus, and many data fields get filled in automatically. It’s way easier and faster than paper forms. (More about self-service for disability claims processing here… and here.)
  3. The VBA workers are doing a whole lot for vets. Most of the workers are on the VA medical side, but there’s also a group that processes benefits payments for vets. That’s the Veterans Benefits Administration–VBA–and they work on over a million disability claims from vets each year. They deserve a lot more thanks than they’re getting.
  4. VBMS development involved a lot of waterfall stuff, but much more recently, VA people are actually directly listening to people on that and acting on that. If vets, VSOs, or VA workers find a problem or have a suggestion, they contact contact actual humans to get stuff done. (A little more on my big idea for 2014 and how to fix Washington’s approach to tech…)
  5. They’ve been working hard to get the paper claims inventory converted to digits and put into VBMS, which involves scanning huge amounts of paper into the system. That’s about 80% done. (You can view before and after photos here.)nerd-4

The Department of Veterans Affairs is doing some really good stuff for vets that no one hears about, catching up since 2009. I’ve helped, in a very minor way for several years, now I gotta do more, for VA, military families, and vets.

What do you appreciate about the VA? And what are you hoping they’ll begin to work on in 2014?

A nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

Extra thanks for VBA workers from your nerd-in-residence

W-S files

(the Winston-Salem VARO before and after pictures, showing VBMS kicking in for real…)

W-S clean

The Dept of Veterans Affairs does a lot of different things for vets. Most of the workers are on the VA medical side, but there’s also a group that processes benefits payments for vets. That’s the Veterans Benefits Administration–VBA–and they work on over a million claims from vets each year. They work hard but get a lot of crap. So this is for them…

Okay, folks, I’ve seen you get the job done, with lots of extra hours, that’s appreciated!

Next steps involve lots more use of VMBS to get stuff done, those photos illustrates that around 75% of the claims inventory has gotten online. It also means getting VSOs involved, which also means connecting outside software like VetPro connected to VBMS via Digits to Digits, D2D.

This is in my role as “nerd-in-residence” at the VA Center for Innovation. (That’s my designated term, I know who I am, and have a sense of humor.) (For Washington, I’m funny; granted that’s a low bar.) (The wife reminds me that I’m not as funny as I think I am.)

Bearing witness: Shinseki does right for vets

Sometimes people in Washington do a really good job, but take a lot of crap unfairly. Sometimes it takes a “nerd-in-residence” to start to set the record straight. This is the short version; every topic below deserves longer treatment.

In 2009, Eric Shinseki took over the Department of Veterans Affairs, with the mission of doing right for vets. Back then: VA didn’t have the right software to process disability claims efficiently. Vets with Vietnam era-Agent Orange illnesses had a hard time getting claims judged properly. Some Vets and Vet Service Orgs (VSOs) felt they faced an adversarial attitude. VA line workers got a lot of unfair abuse. (Note to self: as a customer service rep, I get a lot of that also, almost every day, so I can identify.)

More and more Vietnam vets file disability claims, to get the benefits they deserve. However, it was really hard to get properly compensated for Agent Orange herbicide-related issues. Long story, but the bottom line is that Shinseki designated several Agent Orange-related diseases as “presumptive” conditions, and allowed claims to be made on that basis and approved fast.

However, that inflated the disability claims backlog, not only the current “inventory” of claims but also the “backlog.” For that matter, in the effort to do right by vets, Shinseki insisted on faster processing overall, and imposed stricter standards on quality and what counted as backlog. That made the existing backlog jump in a huge way, creating major perception problems for Veterans Affairs, which have been widely reported.

So the good news, not so much reported, but the bad news got a lot of attention. By doing right by vets, the VA looked bad. For whatever reason, the press has largely neglected good work, and emphasized bad news. (A while back I wrote a thank you note for VBA workers.)

Here’s the history of the claims backlog (courtesy of Brandon Friedman),

USE!!!

Most of the current backlog reduction is attributed to efforts like a lot of dedication and overtime on the part of VA line workers. (Thanks!) However, what VA has needed for a long time, at least since 2003, is an online system to expedite claims processing.

In 2009, Shinseki brought in Peter Levin as VA *Chief Technology Officer and others to make that happens.

Cutting to the chase, they started building the Vets Benefits Management System (VBMS.) The deal with VBMS is that claims could be processed online by VA workers, and entered by vets or VSO claims professionals. If entered by vets, the model is do it yourself, like TurboTax. If entered by a pro at a Vets Service Org,they can get to VMBS directly, or enter documents for the Vet via the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal (SEP). Pretty soon, if they have their own claim system like VetPro, they’ll be able to send from their system to VBMS. It’s like going to get help from H&R Block, or Earl, my CPA.

The first big task is to get the paper claims inventory converted to digits and put into VBMS, which involves scanning huge amounts of paper into the system. That’s about 75% done. Here’s before and after at the Winston-Salem VA RO:

(Before…)

W-S files

(After…)

W-S clean

The big shift to VBMS is just happening right now, and it also means first getting VSOs onboard with either the Portal or indirectly via a gateway called Digits to Digits (D2D).

Big software projects take time, but it looks like all this is happening very quickly for a large organization. At this point, the effort is in agile software development mode. I’m not using “agile software development” in the doctrinaire sense, rather, it’s like I started for my own stuff:

1. ask people what they want and need

2. do it

3. ask people what to improve

4. go to 1

That’s to say, people tell either their local VBMS coach (like Shannon who I met in Oakland) what’s going on, or they tell Allison (that’s actual Brigadier General (retired) Allison Hickey, who runs this part of VA) during her weekly calls with VBMS users. Then stuff gets fixed or deferred. (Note to VSOs: you got suggestions, tell Allison, or if you prefer, tell me, I’ll get ’em to the right place.)

Shineki got lots more going on, like an Employee Innovation effort in 2009, where I helped judge entries. My favorite effort resulted in Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQs), which turn what doctors say into numbers that can be automated via disability rate calculators. DBQs need work, that’s happening, largely due to the efforts of Beth the Enforcer. (I’ll tell that story another time.)

Claims processing can also be delayed while Service Treatment Records are transferred from places like Department of Defense storage warehouses. (The Raiders of Lost Ark Warehouse is actually the VA warehouse…)


However, efforts are proceeding to get Defense to scan in and electronically transfer treatment records to VA. (More later.)

VA is a very large organization, maybe over 330,000 people serving around 22 million potential customers.

Whether private or public, large orgs are normally dysfunctional. Me, I’ve worked at or with large orgs, like IBM, GM, and Bank of America, and seen from the inside how bad things can be; however, public orgs are normally way more transparent than private orgs. I bear witness that Veterans Affairs does really good, with exceptions.

As a nerd, I’ll help make the good better, and I’ll stand up for good people getting a lot of unfair crap flung at them.

A nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑