As we all know from the propaganda fliers VA dropped over us recently, VBMS is getting ready to make a big difference in the backlog. This expected windfall is programmed in to seize the high ground and eliminate Global Warming by going electronic and reducing our dependence of paper. Spotted owls are visibly breathing a sigh of contentment when they hear this.
VBMS stands for Veterans Benefits Management System. I might have chosen a different acronym for it but obviously someone at VA has a sense of humor. I received a note from a rater via their AFGE union board who contributed that same sentiment. The BM part, anyway. Since we don’t dwell on scatological humor, we’ll move on.
VBMS seeks to consolidate all Veterans’ records (read C-files) into a computer database and do away with the older paper files. This will not consolidate the NPRC records. Those will remain in Saint Louis in their paper format until the next big burn-off which is scheduled for some time in 2015 . They haven’t announced the date yet but it will happen within a 125-day window according to anonymous sources who are correct almost 98% of the time.
VBMS will revolutionize rating as we know it. It will enable raters wearing color-coded belts to leap tall buildings at a single bound. The claims examiners wearing black ones are reputed to be faster than a speeding bullet. And the search engines on this puppy are rumored to be more powerful than a locomotive. Those are some mighty large shoes to fill. I don’t care what color sash you’re sporting as long as you’re fast and accurate. What, really will change on this?
A lot of ballyhoo has been published that says this will streamline the process. A Team spirit of hand off and “Kaizen” coupled with the latest app is going to overturn conventional technology. The DROs are walking the hallways dressed like Doc Emmett Brown with their arm around padawan VSRs saying things like “Roads?. Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
VBMS is so versatile and accommodating it will put everything about a Vet at the fingertips of the rater. All his VA medical VISTA and other private medical records will be there word searchable. All his history of claims and the most recent rating sheet will be a fingertap away. What are we missing? What essential ingredient is absent? What can possibly go wrong?
VBMS is a wonderful tool as long as it is viewed a tool and nothing more. The VA has a storied history of trying to turn claims into a mechanical process and remove the distasteful mental anguish of the rater who ultimately has to deny. If you disrupt the process by bifurcating it, the ultimate outcome is never common knowledge to more than a few. Compare it to assembling a car in Detroit. VA’s assembly line starts with a DD 214 chassis and is built up gradually by a succession of different employees. The gentlemen in the mailroom doing triage do not know what becomes of Veteran John Doe’s claim for hammertoe. It’s not their job nor is it the developer who starts collecting and stuffing all the required records into the center flap of his new C-file. Their job is hunter/gatherer and they, too, will never know the ultimate outcome. Each link in the chain hopefully fills a void. When all the evidence is collected, the decision is made. This, again, goes on up the chain and there is no guarantee that a joyful outcome will occur even if the claim is granted at this level. A supervisor may see flaws and deny based on them. The M21-1MR computer can spit out an incorrect assessment based on an error entry. At this point, the vaunted current 86% accuracy rate VA professes starts to appear a little tarnished.
VBMS is not going to increase accuracy to 98% in our lifetimes. The unvarnished truth is that it isn’t at the storied 84-87% they profess in 2012. The unarguable truth, as published in the 2011 Veterans Benefits Manual, is that it hovers at an annual 60% error rate and has for the last 15 recorded years(1998). Interpolating a 60% error rate yields a 40% success rate-half of what VA touts.
Like any numbers game, regardless of who is citing what, if the party in charge is allowed to police itself, gather and refine it’s own statistics and enunciate only the least damning, they will inevitably look adroit. Thus if 85% of Veterans who file claims are denied and don’t appeal, then VA has a 100% accuracy rate. If 10% of the 85% who are denied file an appeal and the BVA only overturns 20% of them, VA’s accuracy again only suffers several percentiles. These matriculate back to the VARO as a repair order rather than a mistake. If you were on the assembly line in Detroit, this would be reinserted in the line from the “chip and dent” room and clearly labeled as a “rework”. Not an error, mind you, but a chassis that missed the quality control check to see if the Social Security Records had been received and associated with the glove compartment.
VBMS is going to be mated with the Disability Benefits Questionnaire and the Ebenefits electronic records filing feature to produce “fast-tracking” of claims. Like the speeding bullet, this is slated to be cutting edge, Lean Six Sigma, black belt, Challenge training at its finest-right up until it’s not.
VBMS cannot assimilate handwrittten paper files. This means the poor unfortunates who are the oldest among us will now be consigned to the slowest claims process. VBMS will not digest lay statements other than if it connects to a key, searchable, printed word. You may have some of the most essential evidence needed to prove your case but if it doesn’t surface in the “word check” mode, the little red light illuminates on the M21 screen. The no shirts, no shoes, no dice light. Electronics are phenomenal at finding things you are looking for. My wife taught me the rudiments of computers and set me loose. I had to learn not only how to search for something but what to search for. This required some knowledge of history. A claim may hinge on where you were and a search for records providing a list of which ship or regiment was involved. I do this for Vets all the time. Not all the evidence is going to be found in a C-file. Some article from Wikipedia may provide the magic clue that fills in the gap needed to complete the claim. VBMS is not going to fill this void because there is no common sense link to the internet. A black belt in tearing C-files in half with your bare hands will not cut this Gordian Knot.
The all-new VBMS does not comprehend turning this back into paper and holding it up to the light. Speed is of the essence now. Remember we’re going off road into a new universe with no roads (or paper). Vets whose claims hinge on old, handwritten SF 92s are going to be required to not only provide these as evidence, but somehow find a doctor to decipher them and say as much. The nexus letter will no longer avail you if VA cannot locate the medical records that link it to a service connected injury. Hell, in this new mode, your handwritten records might as well have burned up in St. Louis.
In a more perfect world, we would simply go in and sit down with one agent(examiner). He would be in the driver’s seat. He would be able to tell you anything and everything about your claim. He would control the vertical and the horizontal. If you were missing something, you would be apprised of it instantly and check your email inbox for a message describing the defect. Real time efiling would mean you could correct it the same day and the claim could continue to sail merrily(X3) gently down the stream. The claim would be assembled by one person with authority to find things or find out why things were missing. His/her job would be to bull nose this thing through and stay on track. Everyone on that team would constantly ask questions if in doubt. Communication would be the glue that ensured accuracy. There would be no “chief prognosticator” from Punxsutawny armed with chicken entrails and tea leaves. He would no longer be permitted to move from desk to desk “construing” that your newly submitted evidence was an attempt to reopen a brand new claim for a condition currently on appeal. The new black belt, newly energized by Challenge training, would be the arbiter of this. A finding would be made based on strict protocols that were equitable. In this brave new world there would be no “team” in I.
VBMS offers us none of this. In fact, the VBMS is still very much in its infancy as well as already being a dinosaur. As of December 2012, 18 VAROs were reputed to be online with it. Considering the problems announced in the VAOIG report, I doubt any are using it with more than 15% success yet. Just having a big sign on the wall saying
does not a VBMS-equipped VARO make. Similarly, having VSRs dressed in yellow sashes shouting Ayy Caramba! and Kaizen Hai! boosts morale but doesn’t do much for productivity when every ten minutes the program tells you it doesn’t have enough to go on.
One thing I have noticed when working on Vets’ claims here is I have time to assemble a puzzle. Most of you send me sensitive, unredacted documents with you name, rank, airspeed and last known heading. This has helped Cupcake and me become very affluent and we wish to thank you for the yacht and the waterfront property in northern Maui. What it also taught me was the need to print it out and put the ingredients into separate piles. Color-coded highlighters on the critical parts often ties together the “who, when, and what” better. I know my military story backwards and forwards but few else do. Therefore, to me, it is essential to create that other Veteran’s history at my fingertips and jump back and forth to find the smoking gun(s). VBMS will not do this. It is too cumbersome. A rater will be forced to view each item as an open tab or worse, have to go back to a table of contents listing the different documents that have some connection or key word. The results currently described by the Gentleman at AFGE was that the VBMS was shipwrecked and using the older, traditional method was still faster. This may all change but the quest for speed is going to create all the pitfalls due to loss of accuracy. In a nutshell, VBMS will simply manufacture more denials faster and make the backlog appear to temporarily evaporate. My wife’s accountant does something similar with numbers for a living.
VBMS is eventually going to create a bow wave of its own that will push a lot of denials into the future. Just as in a marina where it says Max Speed 5 kts. No Wake!, the bow wave of claims will rock the VAROs again when the appealed claims are remanded back for corrections.
Veterans, as a class of citizens, are becoming very socially adept in communications. It doesn’t take long on the Jungle Facebook Trail to hear the drumbeats of other Vet tribes and return their messages. VA has also made computer savvy Vets’ job immensely easier, too. With all the Vets sites sounding the drumbeat of appeal, appeal , until you keel (over), the line at the BVA’s front door is growing longer. This bow wave is now washing over the CAVC and they are quickly bogging down with it like sand in the gears.
My attorney tells me it was always common practice to send out an almost perfectly chronologically collated C-file when asked for on appeal to the Court. In the last few years, some vindictive individuals have hired VA employees to take these and scramble them as perfectly as possible requiring professional intercession-often over a thousand dollars worth- to collate and sort through in time to meet the Court’s deadlines for submission. Remember, these are the essence of your appeal. The CAVC will be relying on these documents in an effort to see if your appeal has merit, too. If their clerks are looking at the same cacophony of helter skelter mishmash, how are they to separate the wheat from the chaff? Take it one step further and realize that the attorneys for the General Counsel are also holding the same hand and chances of a fair and equitable outcome start to lose their luster without massive intervention. Arriving pro se is like volunteering to be cannon fodder.
VBMS will help only to create e records. It can supplement the assimilation and location of records. The subcontractors who scan it in are not being given concise parameters to arrange it in a uniform order. VA is still experimenting on the right format that will work while they go about constructing it. It’s called design/build and is very wasteful. You may have to redesign it several times before you get the results you were hoping for. It will speed up claims processing inasmuch as it will no longer require the VA examiner to get up and go locate the file. Nothing will supplant the HAL 9000 mounted on your shoulders. No computer yet created can surpass the inherent one we possess. VA seems to think they can improve on a system like that.
Last but not least, VBMS merely presages the advent of poor health, obesity and adult onset of Diabetes Mellitus at VAROs due to less physical activity and no more long, leisurely walks down to the file room and back.